ITHACA, N.Y.—TCAT held a hearing over zoom to discuss a slate of proposed major reductions for their Fall bus service on Monday, but the event did not go as expected for the transportation service’s management or  Board of Directors. 

Instead of sharing thoughts about the specific route reductions proposed — the publicized purpose of the hearing — a few of the 13 speakers used the opportunity to push the hearing into a discussion about improving the working conditions for TCAT’S bus drivers.

They identified as members of the “FreeCAT Campaign,” a political initiative under the Ithaca chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) advocating to make TCAT completely fare free in an effort to address carbon emissions and economic inequities within the Ithaca community.

The service cuts stem from a shortage of drivers that TCAT is facing — an issue that has dogged the bus service for years now. Bus driver numbers were declining prior to March 2020 but that rate was hastened by the conditions of the pandemic. 

In 2018, TCAT crested at 90 drivers. Currently, TCAT has 63 drivers behind the wheel. In February, when the bus service had 66 drivers, TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool portended that if recruitment and retention did not improve, TCAT would have to make “severe” service cuts. 

“TCAT has been in a position to reduce service levels really for over a year now,” Vanderpool said on Monday.

An aging workforce and, notably, retaining new drivers are the major causes of the shortage. It’s not unique to TCAT. It’s an issue that is widespread across American bus transit systems. Throwing another monkey wrench into the mix, TCAT is also short staffed on mechanics and disruptions to the global supply chain has also slowed the TCAT’s ability to acquire parts and service their buses. 

No drivers spoke at the meeting. Jane Glaubman of the DSA’s FreeCAT campaign said that she has spoken with two TCAT bus drivers that led her to believe that the simple solution to solving TCAT’s staffing shortage is a matter of money.

“It’s very apparent from hearing the details of their working conditions and pay that they’re not paid enough,” said Glaubman. She did not specify what she thought that raise should look like.

TCAT Bus drivers make about $23 an hour, which comes out to a salary of just under $48,000 a year before taxes, and without considering overtime, which lately has been a staple of many TCAT driver’s workweeks.

Glaubman also spoke to the long hours drivers on TCAT drivers as a major strain.

Up until this point, the cuts to service have been delayed by drivers working six days a week. Drivers regularly work 13 hour shifts. Bus service’s peak hours are divided between servicing morning and evening commutes for the rest of the workforce.

TCAT’s management is currently engaged in contract negotiations with United Auto Workers, the union that represents drivers among other positions at the organization.

City of Ithaca Alderperson Jorge DeFendini called into the hearing, stating he was a supporter of FreeCAT, and urged the TCAT Board of Directors and management to prioritize increasing the pay and reduce shift lengths for drivers, which he called “short term investments for long term returns.”

The service cut, as Vanderpool presented it on Monday, is meant to find a schedule that TCAT’s bus driver staffing can achieve, and service reliably, and end the burnout and strain that the dwindled staff has been going through to keep up the current level of service.

The service cuts resulted in major changes for six routes, which constitutes a decrease of 20% or more in the number of bus hours on them. Among those routes are 82, which connects student housing to Conrell’s Campus and Collegetown; Route 20, which connects Enfield to downtown Ithaca; Route 13 which takes riders from Downtown Ithaca to the Shops at Ithaca Mall in Lansing.

Vanderpool said that routes that had high frequencies of service, which are among the busiest TCAT routes, were chosen for reduction to avoid completely losing certain rural routes.

“It’s better to reduce the frequency of a service — like we talked about at the Cornell Route 82 — than cut out a rural route altogether, and have no options for certain community members,” said Vanderpool. “So these are really hard decisions, and our intention was to spread the reductions throughout the system.”

Otherwise, only two routes remain unchanged in their frequency and time: 14S and 15, the former connects downtown Ithaca to Cayuga Medical center, and the latter connects Downtown Ithaca to shopping and work along the business district on Rt 13. 

 A full list of the proposed reductions is available on the TCAT website

“We’ve held off when other agencies have actually severely reduced service,” said Vanderpool. “We’ve basically kept our service levels the same. However, constantly scrambling to fill, work and provide the same service has really placed a burden on our bus operators and our staff. […] That is just not sustainable.”

Despite this, DeFendini as well as other FreeCAT speakers spoke against the cuts. He emphasized the disadvantages that reduced service will bring to Ithaca residents with low incomes relying on the service to access healthcare or grocery stores, for example, and the obstacle that the cuts create to reducing carbon emissions associated with individual vehicles. 

“And so I’m a big supporter of the FreeCat moment. I’m against the service cuts, because I feel like we are not being responsible in how we’re managing,” said DeFendini. “We can be retaining these drivers more if we invest in the system more.” 

In response, Ithaca Acting Mayor Laura Lewis, also the TCAT Board of Directors Chair, stressed the ubiquity of the issue across transit organizations, and the importance of pay in the equation to solve the problem.

“Driver shortages in public transit are a challenge nationwide, Ithaca is not unique, sadly, in a shortage of drivers and mechanics. So it is a complex challenge to address. It is one that is nationwide and TCAT is interested in addressing the pay and compensation for our employees,” said Lewis. 

Another speaker from DSA’s FreeCAT campaign, Sabrina Leddy, urged TCAT management to explain why they felt that the driver shortage was persisting at TCAT in light of complaints about hours and pay that had been previously raised.

“So a lot of it has to do with the hours, not the conditions or the treatment of the employees,” responded Vanderpool. “We’ve got great people here and a great team”

Leddy also criticized the supposed limits of the hearing to the routes and service reductions.

“I don’t think it’s fair to hold a public hearing about a problem, but only want to hear comments on the symptoms of the problem and not its roots,” she said.

Republican candidate in Ithaca’s upcoming Mayoral election, Zach Winn, attended the meeting, to say that he felt the mask mandate is at least partially responsible for the TCAT driver shortage. He argued that drivers having to wear the masks and enforce riders to wear them themselves 

“It is time to end the mask, and the adversarial relationship that creates between the drivers and the riders. Drivers don’t want don’t want to be enforcing a mask policy.”

He further argued that Cornell as an underwriter of TCAT should be removed for previously not acting in the best interest of the bus service. 

The masking policy which TCAT follows is mandated by New York State for all transit agencies.

Tompkins County Legislator Dan Klein, a TCAT Board of Directors member and former Chair, spoke adamantly about the difficulty of the short staffing, the pandemic, and the strain experienced by both drivers and management at TCAT navigating the situation.

“It has been very impressive what they have done over the last couple of years. I was surprised many times by the ideas that were generated to keep things running as well as they could,” said Klein. “I think we’ve run out of tricks. I think that’s where we’re at right now. And it is painful. It will be painful for all the board members to vote for service reductions.”

After the hearing, the TCAT board of directors delayed its vote on the service cuts in order to further process the comments that were delivered during the hearing, and sent to TCAT. The board is scheduled to consider the cuts on Aug. 17 at a special meeting.

Clarification: This story did not originally indicate that TCAT’s masking policy is a mandated New York State policy for transit agencies.

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn