A proposal to build a new rail line between Brooklyn and Queens on LIRR property could give Long Island commuters new travel options, but the project would have to overcome skepticism from transportation experts and commuters.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, in her State of the State address Wednesday, announced the "Interborough Express" as a key transportation priority for her administration, and directed the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to move ahead with a planned environmental review of the proposal.
The proposal, which transportation experts have estimated could cost up to $2 billion, would use 14 miles of LIRR tracks to transport commuters between Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and Astoria, Queens. The service would operate on the railroad’s Bay Ridge Branch, which stopped running passenger service in the 1920s and is now used for freight transport.
Details of the service are being considered in an MTA feasibility study that has been underway since January 2020, and the MTA expects to hold public hearings about the proposal as part of an environmental review. Among the options being considered are "rapid transit" buses, or light rail trains, which would share use of the route with freight trains.
Although not proposed as an expansion of the LIRR, the route could potentially connect with several railroad stations, including Woodside on the LIRR’s Main Line, and East New York on its Brooklyn branch. It also would connect to 17 different subway lines — potentially serving up to 100,000 riders, the governor said.
The Regional Plan Association, which first pitched the idea for a new rail system along the Bayridge Branch more than 25 years ago, said it was "especially pleased" to see Hochul make it a priority. The group estimates the rail link could reduce commute times between Brooklyn and Queens by 30 minutes.
"The Interborough Express would be a transformational addition to Brooklyn and Queens, cutting down on travel time and helping neighborhoods and communities become cleaner, greener and more equitable," Hochul said.
MTA acting chairman and chief executive officer Janno Lieber said the project "would smartly repurpose existing infrastructure to add mass transit and create access to jobs, education, and opportunity for so many residents of Queens and Brooklyn."
Lisa Daglian, executive director of the MTA’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, said the new rail link also could be a boon for Long Island, as it would provide new options for Nassau and Suffolk commuters traveling to jobs somewhere other than Manhattan.
"I definitely do think it would appeal to Long Islanders … because it would take Manhattan out of the center of everybody’s destination," Daglian said. "There are a lot of job centers that are open, opening, and potentially relocating throughout Queens and into Brooklyn … Not having to necessarily go to Penn Station or to Jamaica or to Grand Central, and then double back, will save people time and money."
The new rail link also could service "reverse commuters" traveling to and from jobs on Long Island, Daglian said.
But Larry Penner said he sees "very little benefit to Long Island" from the project. Penner, a transportation historian, writer and advocate who worked for the Federal Transit Administration for 31 years, noted the LIRR commute may already get worse for Brooklyn commuters in future years, as the LIRR has said it expects to run the majority of Brooklyn service out of a dedicated track at Jamaica that will require most passengers to transfer. Another transfer point in East New York wouldn’t appeal to most riders, Penner said.
"I seriously question the viability of that," said Penner, who also questioned Hochul’s plan to use President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package to get the effort off the ground. "Even if this project was to become real in 2022, you would not see a full-funding grant agreement or a shovel in the ground until 2030 at the earliest. It’s pure fantasy."
Former LIRR commuter Rich Serrano, 31, who moved from Long Beach to Williamsburg in 2020, said he would "definitely use" the Interborough Express if it were available today.
"It’s a pain to visit my friends in Astoria due to the lack of north-south [subway] lines," said Serrano, who works in construction and doesn’t expect the system to be operational until he’s in his 50s.
"The problem would be all the new interconnecting stations that would need to be built. That will be what takes the most time," Serrano said. "I … think it would be a fantastic idea, but the reality of it coming to fruition looks dim."
What to know
Gov. Kathy Hochul in her State of the State address backed a proposal to build a 14-mile rail line between Brooklyn and Queens, and directed the MTA to move ahead with an environmental study.
The Interborough Express would stretch from Bay Ridge to Astoria, and could include several new stations, and links to 17 subway lines and to the Long Island Rail Road.
Project supporters said the new line could benefit Long Island commuters by creating new routes to job centers in Brooklyn and Queens, and helping transport "reverse commuters" to and from jobs on Long Island.