It’s My Turn
Vince Castellano is a longtime Rockaway resident and community activist. He also serves on Community Board 14.
After the last CB14 meeting a few people asked me about White Pot Junction. They said they had heard the name many times, but did not understand it. Since I believe that in a room of people if one person has an unasked question in his or her head, then many have the same question. I thought I would write this article so we could all be on the same page and understand the importance of this old rail link. You can get an old map from Assemblyman Goldfeder’s office to help you visualize what I am talking about.
White Pot Junction is actually the bastardized Dutch name for the area in Kew Gardens where the Rockaway line splits off the LIRR mainline to head south to the Rockaway Peninsula. When service began on the line in the early part of the 20th century this entire line was called the Rockaway Beach Branch. The line goes straight south from Kew Gardens past Forest Park, Richmond Hill, Ozone Park, Aqueduct, JFK, Howard Beach and Broad Channel.
The line split into two branches on the Rockaway Peninsula with the Far Rockaway Branch returning to the LIRR (via Valley Stream) forming a loop. During the Depression, the Rockaway Beach Branch provided a 35- minute ride from Rockaway to Penn Station. Could you imagine such a thing today?
In 1952, NYC purchased the entire Rockaway Beach Branch from White Pot Junction to Far Rockaway, and severed the connection with the LIRR Far Rockaway Branch which remains in service today. Originally, the NYC Board of Transportation planned to link the Rockaway Beach Branch to the subway under Queens Boulevard just east of the 63rd Drive Station. It was never done. It is 60 years later and no one has proposed a better plan.
When the NYC Transit Authority took over the City’s mass transit, it connected the southern portion of the Rockaway Beach Branch to the A train and discontinued use of the 3.5-mile section between Aqueduct and Queens Boulevard. The right of way is still there, but the abandoned tracks have not been used since 1962.
By disconnecting the northern part of the Rockaway Beach Branch, the powers that be severed train service between south and north Queens. Have you ever asked why a train has to go through Manhattan to go to Flushing? This is why.
When the old Board of Estimate approved Rockaway for the subway, the route was changed from the Rockaway Beach Branch as proposed by Robert Moses to the much longer A train route through Brooklyn. The Board of Estimate made this decision in private. There is no record of what was said, and there has never been an explanation for the change in route at the last minute. Theories abound.
Today, many cast covetous eyes on this unused right of way. Some people, in the borough of parks, living just blocks from the sprawling Forest Park, claim that they need yet another park. They claim all alternate uses are unnecessary, undesirable and intrusive. These same people have a 30-minute commute to Manhattan yet feel no shame in denying it to others. It’s the familiar “I got mine, screw you” attitude.
Borough leadership centered in the Kew Gardens area has opposed this plan for decades for selfish parochial reasons. They remain shameless.
The best plan for the future of Rockaway is to re-establish the connection between the existing A train at Aqueduct and White Pot Junction in Kew Gardens. You can do this simply by adding new tracks on the 3.5-mile northern branch thereby making the connection to Queens Boulevard. There, the old Rego Park Station (near 63rd Drive) could be rebuilt as a major transportation hub providing transfers between the subway and the LIRR mainline. The Rego Park Station is less than 10 minutes from Penn Station.
This short 3.5 mile stretch of track effectively connects the A, E, J, M, R and Z subway lines to the LIRR. In addition, it also connects Jamaica Avenue, Atlantic Avenue, Metropolitan Avenue, Junction Blvd, Woodhaven Blvd, Queens Boulevard and the LIE. If you had to create this right of way today the cost would be staggering. Yet this valuable piece of government-owned property just sits there collecting dust for the last 50 years.
Re-establishing the Rockaway Beach Branch would be the most important mass transit improvement for Rockaway since the extension of the A line into Rockaway in 1956.
Making the new Rego Park Station a transportation hub in the center of Queens also makes other transportation options possible. Limited/Select bus services could be established from the Rego Park Station to LaGuardia Airport, Citifield, Queens College and Flushing. This would be a one transfer, one fare connection for south Queens residents to the northern parts of Queens. It would finally make Queens College accessible in practice and not just in theory.
Re-establishing the Rockaway Beach Branch would also reduce vehicular traffic and congestion, since this plan is cheaper, faster and more efficient than existing mass transit plans and current vehicular options within Queens. Congestion on the Van Wyck is legendary. Woodhaven Boulevard and Queens Boulevard are getting so bad they are damaging the quality of life of their neighbors. We can fix these problems or we can continue to pretend they don’t exist. People who claim they want to reduce vehicular traffic and gasoline consumption will be hard pressed to oppose this Rockaway Beach Branch plan.
The politics is simple. The Rockaway Beach Branch was dead until Gov. Cuomo started talking about developing Aqueduct for gambling and conventions. If the governor is to accomplish his goals, the Rockaway Beach Branch becomes imperative. This issue now has the most powerful political leader in the state as the primary cheerleader. We must jump on this bandwagon and start rowing in the same direction.
However, we must remember. We want more than the re-activation of the northern section of the old Rockaway Beach Branch. We want the Rockaway A train connected to it. We want the old 35-minute ride from Rockaway to Penn Station.
Since Assemblyman Goldfeder appears to be the only local politician talking about this issue, I suggest you send him a letter of support.
If we want to improve Rockaway, it is up to us. I would like to acknowledge the generous contributions of John Rozankowski, writer and mass transit advocate, to this article.