TCAT bus

Masks will no longer be mandatory on TCAT.

Tompkins Consolidated Transit (TCAT) is the backbone of public transportation in the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County. For the past several months, the organization has operated under the pressures of inflation, supply chain issues and staffing shortages which has resulted in TCAT making weekly service cuts.

In response to these pressures the Board of Directors at TCAT approved a request to call for an eight percent increase in the contributions made by each of the organization's underwriters — Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca and Cornell University — to account for inflationary pressures that impact TCAT’s ability to keep up with rising costs in the upcoming year.

The increase would mean that each underwriter would make an annual contribution to TCAT of $1,022,911 which would contribute to roughly 16% of the organization's $19 million budget for the upcoming year. However, the underwriter with the largest bank account — Cornell University — has informed TCAT that they will refuse to pay the eight percent increase.

Cornell University, which sits in the hillsides towering over the city of Ithaca has an endowment worth roughly $10 billion.  According to the Cornell Daily Sun, “Approximately 5 percent of earnings are distributed each year to support the University’s operating budget, funding initiatives like financial aid, research and faculty salaries. During the 2022 fiscal year, the endowment paid out $352 million.” 

Additionally, prior financial reports on the university indicate that it spends between $1.25 million to $7.93 million annually on supporting local government and non-profit organizations. This still leaves a hefty sum of money left over for the university to continue to invest in future projects that could be used to make improvements in the city, in which many of its students spend a significant amount of their time. Data shows that roughly three quarters of TCAT riders are associated with Cornell.

On November 21, Cornell’s Vice President of University Relations Joel Martin-Malina wrote an email to the TCAT Board saying that Cornell would continue to honor their commitment as an underwriter to TCAT, “However, TCAT has not offered any specific justification for such a large increase in the underwriter contribution.”

Despite the fact that Cornell says that such a large increase is unjustified, Tompkins County Legislature Chairwoman Shawna Black said that the eight percent increase was “a reasonable and prudent ask relative to the increased challenges in operating our local bus service.” Black continued saying that she was “disappointed” in Cornell’s decision, but that the county is interested in continuing the conversation and hopes to clear up any concerns that exist between TCAT and Cornell.

Malina continued saying that Cornell has confirmed with TCAT administration that the organization “holds approximately $16 million in reserve and fund balance with an additional $15 million in grant/funding.” Essentially, Cornell expects TCAT to use these funds to offset the pressures related to inflation, supply chain issues and staffing shortages.

The TCAT transportation agreement that was signed in October contractually obligated each underwriter to contribute equally to funding the organizations annual operating costs. Since Cornell has refused the increase, both Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca have to as well. This significantly reduces the amount of funding that TCAT expected to be operating with in 2023.

TCAT has made their budget with the increases in mind, so Cornell’s refusal to pay the increase would mean that the organization will have to rethink some of their budgetary priorities. Additionally, TCAT received the $15 million in grant funds that Malina referenced in the email through a $8.7 million grant from the U.S Department of Transportation’s Low or No Emission program, and a $7 million grant from the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority. The DOT grant is meant to fund the purchasing of 10 electric buses and the details of how the NY State grant will be spent have not been made public.

This isn’t even mentioning the fact that based on a budget projection reviewed by the TCAT Board in August, TCAT could potentially face a $3.7 million budget deficit if the organization runs out of reserve funds by 2024.

In response to finding out that Cornell University — which has an endowment of roughly $10 billion — would be refusing to pay the eight percent increase, Tompkins County Legislator and TCAT Board member Dan Klein said that “Cornell’s reasoning is not fair” and that comparing Cornell’s financial situation with TCAT’s is like “comparing watermelons to raisins.”

According to Klien, “Cornell took in approximately $1 billion in donations last year alone.” He continued saying that “Cornell receives the biggest benefit by far from TCAT, and they have shown disregard for the financial well-being of TCAT over and over again. Cornell University should be ashamed of itself.”

Klien said that similarly to Cornell, TCAT received significant funding from the federal government during the pandemic that is helping keep the organization afloat. That one-time money will run out in the near future, and Kien says that using it to fund operations, as Cornell is suggesting TCAT should do, is irresponsible. According to Klien, “You don’t need a Cornell degree to understand that spending one-time money on ongoing operational costs is unsustainable.”

In response to requests to comment further, Cornell’s media relations team said that the university declines to comment beyond what was already released in the Nov. 21 email.

(2) comments

Eddie Coyle

Pre Pandemic I would see empty buses continuously on the weekends to Dryden & other places. If TCAT was run efficiently, these routes would have been cut, saving money and alleviating a driver shortage. You can not have subsidized busing rolling empty buses!

Hardy Griffin

This drives me so crazy -- if Cornell's ridership makes up 75-80% of TCAT users, and they're only paying 30%, then of course there are going to be cuts in service! Cornell has to pay their fair share.

And to Eddie Coyle's comment, I know what you mean, but I would bet those buses were midday. Because TCAT has to pay drivers for full shifts and also has to pay for maintenance, even 2-3 riders midday makes a route worth it (not to mention the intangible benefits of connecting most of Tompkins County).

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