Last week, elected officials and civic leaders in Astoria demanded the W train and QM22 bus route return to the borough, while a similar contingent in northeast Queens called for a bus extension to whisk residents of Bayside, Flushing and Whitestone to lower Manhattan. In the middle of the borough, an abandoned Long Island Rail Road line has become, for some transit advocates, a last ditch effort to drastically fix the flaws of a transit system that has frustrated residents for generations.
Bus lines meander across the entire borough; east-west train lines stop dead in their tracks at Jamaica. Even with an intricate bus system, traveling throughout Queens, depending on the destination, can be an exercise in confusion and futility: a roughly seven mile trip from Jackson Heights to Richmond Hill, without an automobile, requires an F train and a Q10 ride that can take upwards of 30 minutes. For the borough’s less affluent residents, traveling in any direction simply takes much more time.
Those more affluent residents want additional service, too. Residents and elected officials have banded together to demand a commuter bus extension that would allow people in Bayside, Whitestone and Flushing to travel by bus to lower Manhattan without transferring to another bus or train. The QM20 bus leaves from Bay Terrace, traveling via the Clearview Expressway to Flushing before terminating in midtown Manhattan at 57th Street and 3rd Avenue. The QM7, departing from Fresh Meadows, reaches Pearl Street in downtown Manhattan. According to Whitestone resident Ali Fadil, this turns the hushed Fresh Meadows neighborhood into a parking lot. “The MTA said to me, ‘look this is a great, we would love to do it, the only issue is money and right now the MTA has no money.’” Fadil said.
Since the MTA’s financial outlook is now somewhat rosier, though still precarious, Fadil and elected officials like Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone) and State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) have lobbied MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota to create the new downtown service. The MTA now has $29 million to allot to new or expanded services, but a QM20 extension will not be included, according to an MTA spokesman. The Q24, Q27, Q30, Q42, Q36 and Q76 will all have extended or restored service.
Despite forecasting slight surpluses over the next few years, the MTA is relying upon biennial fare and toll hikes, no labor cost increases and tax revenues, at times unreliable, to remain consistent. Governor Andrew Cuomo should be doing more to shore up the MTA’s finances himself, argued Michael Murphy, a spokesman for the public transit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. State and local subsidies account for only 7 percent of the MTA’s budget. Dedicated taxes kick in another 36 percent.
“The solution is monetary,” Murphy said. “Until there is a secure, sustainable source of revenue and fund expansion, we won’t see any improvement. People will keep paying more for less.”
Despite repeated calls for the restoration of the W train, a service that allowed more people to access local stops between Astoria and Lower Manhattan, the MTA said that there are no plans to make the W a reality again because the Q runs on the same route. The MTA will also not restore the QM22 bus, which provided express service between Jackson Heights and Midtown Manhattan via Astoria. Ridership, MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said, was just too low.
Transportation experts agree that public transportation in the borough is not adequate. But they do not believe a simple restoration of a train line like the W is the remedy for slow, unreliable service. One quirk of Queens transit is its segregation: a more expensive Long Island Rail Road and a much cheaper subway system both serve Manhattan-bound commuters. George Haikalis, president of the nonprofit Institute for Rational Urban Mobility, believes integrating the LIRR and subway system into one fare structure is the first step towards rectifying the many peculiarities of Queens public transit. With a fare increase due for next year, Haikalis said that now may be the time for the MTA to begin contemplating such a proposal.
“Right now, we have a system that causes people to take long bus rides to subways and use overcrowded subways,” he said. “We really should be moving toward a one city, one fare kind of structure. A Metrocard would be good for a bus, subway and commuter rail. Riders could pick a combination of routes that work.”
Haikalis said he wants the MTA to “think regionally.” He envisions Long Island City, now filled with glittering hotels and upscale restaurants, as a regional hub that could handle trains speeding from Long Island through to New Jersey. Enhancing the train capacity of Penn Station, rather than undertake a costly LIRR extension to Grand Central Station, would have been a smarter move for the MTA, Haikalis said.
Transit experts have also proposed a train line, known as the Triboro Rx, which would travel over existing freight rail lines, joining southern and eastern Brooklyn with Middle Village, Jackson Heights and Astoria, before continuing over the Hell Gate Bridge into the Bronx.
Smothered with dead leaves, fallen branches and decades-old detritus, the Rockaway Beach Branch represents, for some transit advocates, the last great hope for a public transportation revolution in the borough. Trains have not thrashed across the tracks, spanning from Rego Park through Ozone Park and continuing to the Rockaways, in a half century. Were the line to be revived, Queens would have the north-south rail link urban planners called for decades ago; New York’s master builder Robert Moses scuttled plans for railways along the Van Wyck Expressway, as well as commuter rails that would have ran down the middle of the Long Island Expressway and linked up with subways in Queens.
Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Far Rockaway), along with Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven), have begun pressing for a return of the Rockaway Beach Branch, shuttered in 1962 because of a trestle fire and declining ridership.
The MTA’s budget does not call for sweeping investment any time soon. Goldfeder is hoping Genting, the international gambling giant that runs the Resorts World Casino at the Aqueduct Racetrack, will help finance a rail revival that would bring more patrons to Ozone Park. Commuting times for south Queens residents could be slashed dramatically if the line were revived, but despite Goldfeder’s delivery of 2,500 signature petitions to the MTA, Port Authority and the governor, any hope of reviving the line is many years away.
Community Board 9 Chair Andrea Crawford has spearheaded efforts to turn the former rail line into a “Queensway” equivalent to Manhattan’s High Line. With the rusted rails running across parking lots of an apartment building and little league ball fields, land would need to be condemned for a new rail line, making a greenway a less expensive alternative.
Still, residents in neighborhoods like Forest Hills would prefer the rails to be left alone. The potential noise of people or machines, they have said, would be just too much."
Edited by Shortline Bus, 14 August 2012 - 11:15 AM.