2003-01-11 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

By Stuart Mirsky

By Stuart Mirsky

Has anyone looked closely at the trestle that runs down Rockaway's spine lately? Recently driving along Rockaway Beach Boulevard, I happened to look up at what usually just fades into a kind of featureless background for me . . . when I'm busy focusing on other things, that is. What I saw caused me to do a kind of double take and, later, to drive along beneath the trestle a couple more times just to take a series of closer looks.

The long steel and concrete elevated tracks that unite the east and west ends of our peninsula, and join both to mainland Queens and the rest of the city, are in a state of fairly advanced deterioration at many locations. I noted exposed steel girders all along the track line, where the concrete had delaminated, as well as plenty of spalling and weather induced efflorescence and exposed, corroded rebar where large pieces of concrete have come away in chunks. This is not only an eyesore, not just plug ugly to look at, it is an outright hazard to drivers, pedestrians and, eventually, to the passengers on the trains which make their way along these tracks.

According to Vincent Seyfried and William Asadorian, authors of OLD ROCKAWAY, NEW YORK IN EARLY PHOTOGRAPHS, the railway "viaduct" that is today used by the Far Rockaway and Rockaway Park subway lines was completed around 1942 and was intended to increase safety for pedestrians and vehicular traffic by eliminating dangerous grade crossings like those we still see in nearby parts of Long Island. No longer having to wait for trains to pass by, or worry about switches and signals, the traveling public in Rockaway benefited enormously by the conversion of ground level tracks to the current elevated trestle.

But 1942 was a long time ago and, except for the apparent removal of obviously loose and dangerously delaminated concrete (evidenced by large areas where the concrete has been systematically stripped away to expose the steel girders underneath), there is not much indication that upkeep has been ongoing since the forties. Back in the early nineties, when Al Stabile was first running for Councilman from our area (ages ago it now seems), one of his platforms was to upgrade and paint the trestle a lively pastel color in keeping with our beachfront ambience. Similar things had been done in Howard Beach where Stabile hailed from. But, despite his two terms as our Councilman, this seems to have been an idea whose time never came.

Today, we'd be grateful, I suppose, just to get the upkeep part. But Stabile aside, where has the city itself been and what is the MTA planning to do to address the obviously extensive deterioration that is eroding away the old elevated structure that serves as the very backbone of the peninsula? During the six plus years I spent as Assistant Commissioner for Operations at the New York City Health Department, I shut down facilities and cordoned off areas for far less cause than the problems that are now manifesting along the length of these elevated tracks. It always seemed better to me to act preemptively than to wait until a chunk of concrete fell on someone's head. But hey, that's just me.

Now it is certainly clear that the city is, at least, aware of the problem or there would not be so many areas that have been sculled clean of loose and deteriorating concrete, as I saw when I did a closer inspection. But there are still plenty of areas where the situation does not appear to have been addressed at all and where weather-eroded material continues to pose an imminent hazard to those underneath. One gets the sense that the city is not being sufficiently systematic, comprehensive or proactive here in finding and addressing areas of concern. At the least, they are not keeping pace with the extent of the deterioration that is occurring.

More, while it is important, on a short-term basis, to strip away all loosened materials before they fall onto those below, it is just as critical to develop and implement a capital restoration project as soon as possible in order to arrest further deterioration and return the trestle to acceptable condition. Given the city's current budget crisis (even capital projects are being cut back) and the long and complex city capital initiation process, we may be sure that if this is not already underway, we will not be looking at any substantial remediation of this problem for the next five years . . .  at the earliest.

City capital jobs, of course, are not only lengthy to initiate, they are generally a good deal more costly than their private sector equivalents (because the city bureaucracy kicks up the costs of doing business, all the way around, while adversely affecting market competition). But even current costs may pale by comparison to what this could cost us in the future. The longer this is delayed, the more costly it will get. Left long enough, the only solution will be to tear large sections of the trestle down and rebuild (as happened with the city's old West Side Highway which was allowed to deteriorate until it began to fall, in pieces, onto the roadways below).

But surely, this would be an unconscionable situation in today's world here in Rockaway, given that we pay what seem to be ever increasing taxes annually, expecting, in exchange, that our local needs will be handled expeditiously and effectively. All of this, of course, is a result of our having ceded the right of home rule to so-called Greater New York City back in 1898, along with all the other non-Manhattan locations. But what have we gotten in return: a city government that is too big and too cumbersome to pay close attention to the needs of this area or, when they do this, to do it with a reasonable level of efficiency.

How great, in the end, can that arrangement that made us a cog in the wheel of "Greater New York" really have been if Rockwayites must today watch their community and its critical infrastructure fall apart around them each year, worrying all the while about the day they'll have to start dodging falling debris from a trestle that was once the pride of this peninsula? It's time for city officials to open their eyes and take another look at what they've wrought . . . before communities like ours and others in the outer boroughs do it for them.


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