Dear Riders: This Is Going to Hurt

It was, apparently, too good to last. After years of improving performance and reliability, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority last week

It was, apparently, too good to last.

After years of improving performance and reliability, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority last week approved a set of extreme service cuts and a massive 25 percent fare hike.

Should no new money come from the Legislature in Albany, entire lines would be cut, stations would grow dirtier and fewer booth operators would be around to help. The train cars and tracks would deteriorate rather quickly, giving rise to even more “signal problems” that so often hold up trains, boosting the number of “slow zones”—which are pretty much what they sound like—and increasing the number of derailments.

It wouldn’t exactly be New York in the 1970s, but a decaying transit system, if it gets bad enough, actually begins to undermine New York’s status as a vibrant urban center, interrupting the flow of a system that gives over 2.6 billion rides a year, doing damage to a central feature of the city’s business position and general quality of life.

Legislative leaders in Albany have vowed to act to prevent the current set of cuts and hikes on the table from going into effect, but, at least for now, have been unable to strike a deal.

Already many train lines are packed to what seems like capacity at peak hours, but for riders in both the trains and on the station platforms, there are many more riders to come. Thanks to a growing population in the city, this would happen with or without service cuts. But should investment in the M.T.A. fall, there would be fewer, not more, trains and buses to handle the growing number of New Yorkers.

Traffic would get worse: With less frequent and reliable trains—not to mention higher fares—more people will surely be turned off by the system.

“People will really just decide not to use the service and will end up doing whatever else, be it walking, biking or probably using a car instead,” said Hope Cohen, an infrastructure expert at the Manhattan Institute.

Which, in turn, would only hasten the decline of the public options.

“It’s a vicious spiral—if there’s less and less service, and less and less people want to use it,” Ms. Cohen said. “That’s when it becomes more derelict and crime-ridden and all those things.”

Entire neighborhoods would effectively grow further away from the rest of the city, as the time it takes to reach them on mass transit would increase. With the Z train slated for closure, for example, all the stops along the J and Z line from Lower Manhattan to Jamaica would be many minutes further apart, as they would lose their express train.

It’s almost enough to raise the once-fantastical question of whether, say, Charlotte can become the new midtown Manhattan. After all, there’s a reason why the city’s two most powerful big-business advocacy groups—the Partnership for New York City and the Real Estate Board of New York—are pushing hard for a rescue plan for the agency (even one that includes new taxes, which are often opposed by the two groups), and it’s not because billionaires Mort Zuckerman and Jerry Speyer are loath to pay an extra $0.50 on their subway rides.

If executives can’t promise with any degree of certainty that they’ll arrive on time for 8:00 a.m. meetings, and the ride from Scarsdale to Grand Central becomes increasingly cramped and uncomfortable, companies find the relative allure of a Charlotte—or a Dallas, or an Atlanta—where the cost of business is already so much lower, grows.

In New York, it’s no coincidence that the spots to emerge as the “next” up-and-coming neighborhoods in the past decade—Williamsburg, say, or Long Island City—are well served by subways, and just a quick ride away from Manhattan. While transit isn’t the single factor in what makes or breaks a neighborhood, the gentrifying classes simply won’t go to neighborhoods that aren’t well served.

For Williamsburg and Greenpoint, that could mean that the jam-packed L trains get so full that the hipsters and yuppies alike stop flowing in. For Bushwick, the even longer ride on a crowded L train, or an even slower ride on the contemptible G train, could push away would-be inhabitants.

This is to say nothing of the impact on the Bloomberg administration’s grand plans for bringing dense new development to farther-flung parts of the city. Coney Island, where the City Hall wants to turn empty lots into condo towers and hotels, would surely need a reliable, fast connector with Manhattan (an F express train is contemplated). A planned 6,000-apartment development by Citi Field has relatively few parking spots as residents will be expected to make good use of the No. 7 train. And Jamaica has been rezoned to allow for apartment towers along Hillside Avenue, currently marked by its auto dealers. If the transit system were to fall apart, these plans would never get past the planning phase.

And speaking of planning, if the M.T.A. doesn’t have money for capital, it will mean that the long-awaited expansion projects will continue to exist in an awful limbo, making an otherwise pleasant place like the Second Avenue on the Upper East Side a downright unpleasant place to live.

Partially torn up for construction of the long awaited Second Avenue Subway, that project is not even fully funded in its first phase, and would likely be one of the first things to get delayed or canceled should capital-funding dollars fail to appear. After years of construction, residents would see no reward for their suffering during construction. In fact, they would only suffer more: Overcrowding would just grow on the already stuffed Lexington Avenue line.

Hello, Charlotte? Dear Riders: This Is Going to Hurt