At last Wednesday’s meeting at Borough Hall, Borough President Melinda Katz and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, both supporters of the light rail, made their case for its necessity in the borough.
“We are a transit desert, we are desperately trying to find alternative means of transportation,” Katz said. “People need a way to get in and out of Queens.”
Crowley, who funded the $500,000 feasibility study, said the rail could mean more jobs and opportunity for housing.
“This would give people more time at work, not sitting in traffic,” she said. “If this project becomes a reality, it could help millions of people.”
DOT project manager Jeff Peel said the goal of the feasibility study, set to be released in the upcoming months, is to determine if passenger rail and freight rail can run simultaneously.
“Our goal is to see if it can work,” he said. “It’s not a final plan for rail activation, it’s a first step.”
The 8.5-mile Lower Montauk branch line used to have six stations west of Jamaica, Peel said. But as service declined and ridership fell, the Long Island Rail Road decided to end all service in 2012. Today, the route is only used for freight service.
Peel reminded stakeholders that numerous future studies are needed, including an environmental review, rail planning and engineering studies, and funding and financing assessments.
DOT still needs to study what type of rail it will be, where stations will be located, service plans, potential ridership, and capital and operating costs.
The project faces some challenges, Peel said, including limited space in the right-of-way, single tracks on parts of the line, and the prospect of increased freight movement.
“We’re not the only ones eyeing this for development,” he said.
Ultimately, DOT will have to see if passenger and freight rail can run at the same time and on the same tracks, Peel said. Both would need additional yard and track infrastructure.
According to Peel, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations limit jointly operating lighter and heavier equipment on adjacent tracks. Peel said the light rail would either have to meet FRA requirements or separate lighter and heavier trains by time and space.
DOT is also studying the different types of passenger rail vehicles. Listing all of the options, Peel said they have to consider if they want third-rail electrical power, pollution-free or diesel vehicles, as well as the power and footprint issues that come with each option.
The feasibility study will tackle the right-of-way issues along the corridor. Peel said DOT has to consider all of the at-grade, overhead, under-grade and single-track crossings on the route.
They also have to consider the type of passenger service the light rail would provide. DOT is considering either a six-minute frequency with 15 train sets or a 15-minute frequency with six train sets.
A higher service level means increased transit connectivity, improved accessibility and mobility and less reliance on cars, Peel said. On the other hand, it would also mean higher annual operating costs and subsidies and increased interference with freight operations.
“We want something to split the difference,” Peel said. “The challenge is putting service people want in a cost framework.”
When asked about potential ridership, DOT officials said they don’t have projections yet.
Peel also discussed potential stations on the route, including stops in Long Island City, Fresh Pond/Metropolitan Avenue, Glendale and Jamaica.
In that scenario, the agency would have to build new stations, such as at Greenpoint Avenue, Grand Avenue/Flushing Avenue, Metro Mall and Woodhaven Boulevard.
The line would include former stations on the old Lower Montauk branch, including Penny Bridge, Haberman and Richmond Hill.
According to DOT, the goal is to place stations one mile apart from each other. In comparison, LIRR lines in Long Island are one to two miles apart, while the Queens Boulevard subway line has stops a half-mile apart.
DOT is now finishing up its technical analysis of the light rail study, with a draft of the report expected in the fall.
After the final study comes out, possible next steps include refining the rail mode and station concepts, developing capital and operations cost estimates, modeling possible ridership, and projecting future growth scenarios in the corridor.
Peel said a “likely projection year” would be 2025 if the city acts aggressively on the project.
“I’d like a shovel in the ground before the borough president’s [second] term ends,” Crowley said in response.
The councilwoman argued that the freight trains are already sharing space with commuter trains east of Jamaica into Long Island.
“Why not use a similar type of train as the rail line in Long Island?” she said. “The whole idea is we’re already letting commuter rail mix with freight.”
Crowley said most Queens residents are opposed to adding more freight service, which could be a possibility.
“This part of Queens holds this burden,” she said. “Freight has been a headache to the community.”
As officials await the release of the final feasibility study, Crowley said the ultimate decision will be made by the top state executive.
“It comes down to the governor’s decision,” she said. “This is MTA land under the governor’s leadership.”