TCAT bus

Masks will no longer be mandatory on TCAT.

Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) has been one of the most important elements in forging the communities of the City of Ithaca, Tompkins County, Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community into a unified region. The past few weeks have been busy for TCAT, involving labor shortages, mandated route cuts, ongoing transportation agreement negotiations, and demands from local activists to make TCAT travel fare free. These have contributed to a perception, justified or not, of uncertainty surrounding the future of the much-admired organization.

Conversations about making TCAT free and renewing the organization's transportation agreement between the City of Ithaca, Tompkins County and Cornell University dominated the beginning of the City of Ithaca Administration meeting that took place on August 24.

During the meeting Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America and Free TCAT Campaign member Sabrina Leddy asked for the transportation agreement to be extended on a short-term basis while the TCAT Board conducts a one-year study into the logistics of going fare free. According to Leddy, “the results of that study could signal drastic alterations to TCAT’s budget and as such a renewal for years or even decades seems very unwise.”

According to City Attorney Ari Lavine, “the agreement is currently scheduled to expire on October 9 with no auto-renew. If this does not move forward in time for the city, the county, and Cornell to sign a new agreement prior to October 9 then TCAT would find itself effectively unfunded in the near future, which would be a disastrous consequence.”

In order to meet the October 9 deadline, the TCAT Board, the City, the County and Cornell must come to terms on making changes to section 6.3 of the transportation agreement.

Currently, what 6.3 says is that each of the underwriters will automatically absorb a third of any additional losses TCAT sustained that year. The revised version of 6.3 proposes that each of the underwriters will consider absorbing those losses, and that if they absorbed them, they all need to absorb them in equal measure.

So the question Common Council needs to ask itself is do they prefer that the TCAT Board have the ability to make what amounts to budgetary determinations that the Common Council has to pay for, but did not get to vote on? Or do they prefer to leave those determinations as to absorbing TCAT’s losses within the budgetary determinations of the Common Council and the County legislature and Cornell respectively?

According to Lavine, the changes being considered to section 6.3 “provide agency to each of the three underwriters to evaluate their own budgetary outlook and what they want to support.” He continued saying, “in order to get this agreement renewed, we need all three underwriters to agree on renewing it and what the terms look like. And Cornell clearly also wants this term…so it’s unclear whether the deal would get done if this term is not in there,”

These negotiations are happening at the same time as public pressure to make TCAT fare free is growing.

Ithaca DSA member, Annika Rowland, who is also part of the Free TCAT Campaign, urged local elected officials to support making TCAT free for all residents during last week's meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature.

According to Rowland, the county should transition to fare free transportation since free public transportation creates equitable transportation options for people of all income levels while at the same time reducing vehicle emissions that contribute to climate change.

The Free TCAT Campaign mission statement says that the working people who support our daily lives are “underpaid and under supported” and find it difficult to meet their basic needs. They say expensive housing costs in the city of Ithaca have “pushed lower-income residents to outlying areas, often forcing them to drive as the only means to get around.” Additionally, they say private vehicles account for 30-40% of local carbon emissions that contribute to climate change and incentivizing public transportation by making it free can reduce the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere.

According to the Free TCAT Campaign, “We can slash this figure by dramatically increasing ridership on mass transit, something we could easily achieve by eliminating fares and providing frequent reliable service on a wide spectrum of routes.”

Rowland said that the TCAT Board is on the verge of spending $1 million on a new farebox system, which would further delay a transition to fare free transportation.

Instead of spending $1 million on a new farebox system, Rowland said she would rather see that money allocated towards other essential services such as increasing pay for TCAT drivers or expanding service for people who need transportation at odd hours of the day—such as the many service workers that the City wouldn’t be able to operate without.

In addition, if the farebox funds were reallocated to the essential services mentioned above, the TCAT Board would be able to use that money to hire more drivers to fill service gaps that have been discussed extensively.

According to TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool, TCAT currently has between 65 to 68 full time bus operators, but they need a number closer to 90 to meet their full-service needs. As a result of these staffing issues remaining unsolved, the TCAT Board has announced that they will be cutting back routes that serve Cornell University and the surrounding areas.

During a special board meeting on August 17, the TCAT Board of Directors approved major reductions on routes 11, 13, 20, and 82. The board said that the agency will restore service “as soon as staff can overcome staffing and parts shortages.” Vanderpool also says that these shortages are a barrier to making public transportation in Ithaca free since TCAT simply couldn’t withstand the increase in ridership that would result from going fare free.

According to Vanderpool, other cities that have transitioned to fare free public transportation, like Chapel Hill, North Carolina, have seen a roughly 30% increase in ridership. As a result, he says, “we’re really not equipped, due to our driver shortage for one thing, to go fare free right now.” He continued saying, “if we can’t support the service we’re currently providing it would be a challenge to go fare free, but not a challenge we can’t overcome in the near future.”

Vanderpool is aware of the challenges associated with going fare free, but he recently said, “I’m not against fare free…we just have to figure out how we’re going to make it happen.” According to Vanderpool, making TCAT fare free is going to “help us in a few ways.” Specifically, he says “loading would be quicker, and there is a potential retention piece for our drivers who would no longer be burdened with the process of error collection.” He continued saying, “And obviously it’s great for the community. That’s the main thing.”

Even though TCAT is cutting back its service to Cornell, on June 15 the TCAT Board of Directors came to an agreement with Cornell to extend the Cornell University Bus Pass Program—a contract that allows the transportation company to continue providing bus service on the university's campus—for another year without asking them to increase their contribution to cover inflation.

Under the bus pass program, Cornell University is responsible for covering the ridership fees of its students, faculty, and staff in lump sum amounts. For example, Cornell paid TCAT a total of just over $3.3 million in monthly payments to provide transportation service on campus from July 2021 to June 2022.

Demands for fare free transportation have increased budgetary pressures on the local transportation conglomerate because fare revenue has decreased since the start of the pandemic as a result of decreased ridership. At the same time, inflation has resulted in increased costs for everything from bus parts to the people that drive them. According to Vanderpool, “inflation has resulted in the costs of almost every aspect of TCATs operations increasing. For example, the cost of buses, gas, parts, and wages have all gone up.”

The TCAT website says that “In 2019, annual ridership was about 4.2 million, a 54 percent increase in the span of 15 years. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, TCAT’s ridership has dropped.” It continues saying, “the pandemic, which started showing up in Tompkins County in mid-March 2020, prompted an abrupt decline in rides by 90 percent, and overall ridership for 2020 fell by 66 percent to about 1.4 million.” However, by the end of 2021 ridership increased to just over two million—around 50 percent of what it was before the pandemic.

Fare revenue accounts for a total of roughly 30 percent of TCAT’s budget. That includes Cornell University's annual fare payment program. In addition, the City of Ithaca, Tompkins County, and Cornell University each provide 18 percent of the total operating budget.

Cornell supplies more funding for TCAT than Ithaca College, the City of Ithaca, or Tompkins County. However, TCAT’s largest single source of revenue comes from the New York State Operating Assistance fund. This fund accounts for about 38 percent of TCAT’s $18 million annual operating budget.

Vanderpool recently told The Ithaca Times, “we're actually running at a deficit right now, but we don't expect that to continue.” He continued saying, “but if that trend does continue, we will not have the ability to go fare free until this economic situation subsides.” However, he also said, “if our underwriters continue to provide similar payments to support our operation, I think that's going to be critical to going fare free.”

Specifically, Vanderpool is referencing Cornell University's $3.3 million annual bulk payment to TCAT, in addition to annual payments by the city of Ithaca and Tompkins county—which total roughly $2.8 million. However, according to Vanderpool, “if these payments don't continue, we will likely not be able to go fare free.”

(2) comments

Henry Kramer

Basic economics, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Fare free rides are not free. 38% comes from NY State but ultimately from taxpayers. Only 30% comes from fare revenue. Tompkins county residents county taxes subsidize TCAT. Fare free travel benefits mainly City residents, not rural ones. So, "fare free" is an illusion, the costs of TCAT must be paid. Just another transfer of cost from all taxpayers to those who ride TCAT. And, all Covid risk is not gone. Riding with others in a confined space can be dangerous to health. Just because you might not pay at the fare box does not mean it is not costing you whether you ride TCAT or not.

Eric Nord

“Free” = fare free. Fare box revenues are ~10% of TCAT's budget. The General Manager of TCAT has said that he believes going fare free is a realistic idea. The freeCAT campaign is focused on a progressive approach that asks Cornell to pay a fair share of TCAT. 75% of TCAT ridership is Cornell students and workers. Currently, Cornell is paying 27% of TCAT’s budget (a 56% share of local funding). Ithaca and Tompkins County are subsidizing Cornell’s share of TCAT. Cornell has annual revenues of $5.7 billion (!!!). The combined tax revenues for Tompkins County and Ithaca ($169 million) are less than 3% of Cornell’s annual revenues. In short, local residents desperately need economic relief, climate change demands that we shift to public transportation, and Cornell can easily afford to fund freeCAT. I don’t see any good arguments against freeCAT except that maybe our local politicians are too chicken to confront Cornell with a fair and reasonable ask.

Welcome to the discussion.

This is a space for civil feedback and conversation. A few guidelines: 1. be kind and courteous. 2. no hate speech or bullying. 3. no promotions or spam. If necessary, we will ban members who do not abide by these standards.

Recommended for you