On one side is the QueensWay, a High Line-inspired park and green space that would offer pedestrian and bike paths, recreational and educational opportunities and economic development for local businesses.
The other proposal is called the QueensRail, which would reactivate public rail service between Rego Park and Ozone Park.
In front of dozens of local residents and business owners, representatives from both camps presented their plans to transform the 47 acres of tracks that go through Rego Park, Forest Hills, Glendale, Woodhaven, Richmond Hill and Ozone Park.
For more than 70 years, the rail line was used by the Long Island Railroad and was known as the Rockaway Beach branch, according to QueensRail’s Rick Horan. In the 1950s, it was sold to the city, which later disconnected the line to link the southern half of the rail to the A train.
In 1962, the MTA closed off the line permanently, citing a lack of ridership, Horan said. It has been abandoned since.
Travis Terry, a leader of the community-based group Friends of the QueensWay, made his case for the 3.5-mile park. Roughly 322,000 people live within one mile of the old rail right-of-way, with 12 schools nearby.
The land is owned entirely by the city. Forty acres belongs to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), while seven acres within Forest Park is overseen by the Parks Department.
Terry argued that a park, which will feature areas for fitness, sports and outdoor classrooms, will benefit the community’s health, connect surrounding neighborhoods, and make the area safer for residents.
“The holistic package of what the QueensWay delivers to our community, borough and city is just overwhelming,” he said. “QueensWay has a lot of aspects to it that will help us improve quality of life.”
In addition to health and environmental upgrades, Terry said the park will boost local commerce as well. It will connect commercial hubs on Metropolitan, Jamaica and Atlantic avenues, create construction jobs and increase property values, he said.
“We’re going to work with our local businesses to attract new customer bases,” he said. “QueensWay will be attractive, so it’s something people will want to experience. They’ll want to eat and want to shop.”
Another benefit of the project, Terry said, is that it would fix the current conditions on the rail line. He said the track is “full of litter” and unsafe.
“It’s frustrating for the community and those of us who live here to have to feel this everyday,” said Terry, who lives in Forest Hills. “It’s just a blight in our community. It’s ugly and unused.”
To address safety concerns, he said the project will add better lighting along the path.
Terry said QueensWay, working with the national nonprofit The Trust for Public Land, has raised $2 million for the project, both from public entities and private foundations.
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council provided a feasibility grant to begin the project, which went through a year-long community-planning process.
Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi also delivered a grant for the group to focus on the first phase of the plan, which will develop a stretch between Metropolitan Avenue and Union Turnpike.
The total cost of the project nears $150 million, Terry told the Queens Chamber audience on Tuesday.
Horan presented an alternative vision for the rail line. He said connecting the transit-starved regions in south and central Queens will “make our community one.”
“We’re at the crossroads,” the QueensRail advocate said. “Future generations will judge our decisions that we make in the next year or two.”
Horan argued that a new rail line would reduce commute times for thousands of residents going into Manhattan or other parts of the borough. He believes it will save riders half an hour in either direction.
Because the right-of-way still exists, the project doesn’t require a lot of infrastructure change, Horan said.
“Thankfully, this right-of-way remains intact, it’s an asset we should not squander,” he said. “This is a transportation line and should be used accordingly.”
Not only would local institutions like Resorts World Casino and the Aqueduct Racetrack benefit from a revived line, but travelers going to John F. Kennedy International Airport would too, he said.
“It’s not just about a railroad for people who choose that mode of transportation,” Horan said. “It’s going to help alleviate a lot of the congestion on roads. We can make the road safer for bicyclists.”
The MTA is currently completing a study on the rail that is due out in June. Though Horan isn’t sure of the scope of the study, he said he hopes a “complete cost-benefit analysis” is conducted so the community will know both the price tag and what they will get out of it.
Though Horan didn’t have an estimate of the cost of the project, he said it could come close to $1 billion or even more if it connects to the city subway system.
The transit advocate said he wants the community to have all of the information, including the feasibility of rail service, before any group moves forward with its plans.
“What I’m hoping is that the Friends of QueensWay does not start developing the land until Queens as a community has come to a consensus as to how this right of way should best be used,” Horan said. “Once any of this land is developed, it can kill the right of way as a transportation option in the future.”
In their presentations, both representatives offered reasons why the opposing plan wouldn’t work. Terry argued that not only is rail reactivation too expensive, as studies have shown it would cost up to $4 billion, but it would be repetitive, complicated and hurtful for current transit options.
Horan said he agrees that the current rail line is an “eyesore.” If additional transportation options weren’t so desperately needed, he said, he would be a park advocate too.
“But we see parks as a luxury and rail transportation as a necessity,” he said. “Not to say I don’t love parks or they’re not a big part of my life, but there needs to be a balance.”
Queens alone has 435 parks, he said. Forest Park, which QueensWay would cut through, is 535 acres.
“It’s not about adding 47 more acres of parkland as much as it is about giving people a more convenient way to get the parks we already have,” he said.
Horan later took a shot at The Trust for Public Land, which helped secure 1.9 acres of parkland in Rockaway Beach years ago. He pulled up photos from last week that show the area littered and dirty.
“Almost seven years since this park was acquired, it’s still a lot,” he said. “The Parks Department has a real problem with maintaining the parks it has, nevermind taking on another 47-acre project.
“Be careful what you wish for,” Horan added. “It’s not always what you would hope or expect.”
Thomas Grech, executive director of the Queens Chamber, asked both parties if they could come up with a compromise. Both Terry and Horan agreed it could not be done.
“The big problem is it’s not wide enough to accommodate both,” Terry said.
“If you compromise either idea too much, you’re defeating the purpose,” Horan added. “Unfortunately we’re going to have to choose one or the other.”
Rockaway resident Joe Hartigan insisted a compromise could be reached to have both a bike path and a rail.
“I’m more interested in an express bike path up there,” he said. “That’s a bike lane you get on and get off at the train station, and then you go to work.”
Residents and business owners asked about a variety of concerns, including the noise that would come from a rail, the cost of maintaining yet another park, and how both would impact current infrastructure.
Chamber member Julian Snype, president of JTeck Management Consultants, said after hearing both presentations, he’s not convinced on either plan. His biggest issue was that neither plan would address parking issues in the area.
“When you’re thinking of going with projects this big, you have to be considerate of the homeowners that are there,” he said. “I feel for the people who are in this neighborhood. There isn’t ample parking space.”
Though he thinks QueensWay is a “great project,” Snype had concerns about maintenance as well.
“We’re not maintaining what we have today, so I consider that a problem,” he said.
He added that he’s “anxious” to hear what the MTA has to say about the rail line, but still needs more information.
“I don’t have enough information to say I’m happy with either one of them,” Snype said. “I’m not feeling it until someone tells me the study is done and we’ve built it for growth.”
Forest Hills resident Prameet Kumar, who attended the discussion, advocated for the QueensWay. He said there is a need for more park space in Queens.
“I never go north and south because of crossing Queens Boulevard, but the QueensWay would make it easier,” he said. “I don’t visit Forest Park right now because it’s so difficult, but it won’t be a problem anymore.”
Chamber board member Salvatore Crifasi didn’t buy the idea that another park would improve transit for residents and commuters.
“Transit in Queens is more important than another park,” Crifasi said. “There is no way another park will take away from traffic.”
Erica Finocchio contributed additional reporting for this article.