This story was written and published in collaboration with The Cornell Daily Sun.
ITHACA, N.Y.—Over the last few years, the regular bus passengers of Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) have had to contend with reduced service levels due to the COVID-19 pandemic and staffing challenges that the bus company has faced.
The most impacted populations include people with incomes too low to afford a personal car and students at the local colleges. For many residents of Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca, TCAT buses are the primary mode of transportation, and the availability of a bus route and its frequency can end up determining much more about their life than when they need to arrive at the bus stop.
Esse, a senior citizen who did not want to be identified by her last name, shared with The Ithaca Voice and The Cornell Daily Sun that TCAT’s major service cuts in August last year removed later night bus runs she relied on to get to and from work, subsequently forcing her to change jobs. She said that she lives in a low-income apartment in the City of Ithaca’s West End and can’t afford a car. While she’s mostly retired, Esse said that she needs to work at least part-time in order to meet her cost of living.
“I’m too old to walk in the dark, and I’m not rich enough to take an Uber,” Esse said.
The administration at TCAT is trying to project hope as service restorations appear possible. TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool said that “We are doing everything we can as an organization to try to get to a better place.”
Drivers, mechanics and other workers at TCAT ratified a new labor contract last week and while many members of the bargaining unit had mixed feelings about it, Vanderpool said that it is going to be a key part of making the company a competitive place to work and improve the weakened staffing numbers.
TCAT has seen its driver numbers hover around the mid-50s and lower 60s for over a year now. In 2019, TCAT had over 80 drivers running routes. The newly ratified labor contract creates opportunities for raises among the staff at TCAT. Previously, a driver who worked at TCAT for 20 years would earn the same wage of $23.67 an hour as a driver that had been behind the wheel for two years.
The limiting factor to adding new bus lines and increasing frequency is staff, Vanderpool explained. The cost of restoring service levels, even if riders are slow to return, will be supported by state funding through the New York State Operating Assistance.
TCAT has also seen its underwriters, which include Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca and Cornell University, agree to increase their contributions to the bus company by 5% after Cornell University initially declined an 8% increase. Under the 5% increase, the three underwriters will be contributing $2,983,722 in equal parts to TCAT’s $19.2 million budget. The funds will go towards compensating TCAT’s workers as well as the other rapidly increasing costs that the bus company is grappling with.
“Our main concern right now is just to get the service back to where we were in 2019. I feel like we’ve let down people. It hasn’t been our fault, necessarily, but I just feel bad that we’re in this place,” Vanderpool said.
Currently, the goal for TCAT is to have 70 drivers on staff by Fall 2023, Vanderpool said.
TCAT delays and service cuts have had an acute impact on the Cornell University community, which claims the most heavily ridden bus routes. Vanderpool said that restoring routes that service Cornell’s campus is among TCAT’s priorities as it works to rebuild its service levels. TCAT’s Fall 2022 and Spring 2023 service cuts concentrated on removing service from parking-scarce Cornell, Vanderpool said, to maintain county-wide service and avoid leaving residents in rural towns like Danby or Newfield “with no options to get where they need to go.”
Two major lines, routes 83 and 92, have been cut from TCAT’s Spring 2023 schedule, and many students have toiled with the disruptive delays and general unreliability of the public transportation service as a result.
Divya Raina, class of 2023, said that she has been particularly devastated by the loss of route 83. Living on West Campus, Raina relied on this route to get to campus every day, which she said was very consistent. As a business major, she needs to get to Warren Hall each morning, a 15-minute walk up the slope.
“This is a service that pretty much everyone I know living on West uses a lot. Pretty much everyone I know on North uses it,” Raina said. “Cornell is very, very hilly. Especially when the weather gets bad, no one wants to be climbing up the slope. I’m really missing route 83.”
Many Cornell students reiterated the same problem. Uma Datta, class of 2024, lives near a bus stop on College Avenue and said overcrowding has impacted her commute. The morning she was interviewed, the bus was too crowded for her to get on.
“The bus is always full. There must be some problem with them knowing that if a route is really busy, they maybe should ease up that traffic by having another line that comes shortly after if they know there’s peak times, in the morning or in the evening, when people are coming and going to class,” Datta said.
Many students said that they face general problems with TCAT delays and conflicting times between the different apps that are used to navigate TCAT times, including Google Maps, Ithaca Transit and myStop.
Musa Shah, a freshman, said he is consistently late to classes due to TCAT delays. On the day he was interviewed, TCAT was making him late for an important appointment to get a social security number downtown.
Graduate student Grace Beals lives in Lansing and is dependent on TCAT to get her to classes and work. She has two bus route options to get to Cornell, which come once an hour. Last semester, TCAT pulled her usual bus time, requiring her to leave for work much earlier.
“I have a toddler at home, so I try to say goodbye to him so that he’s not worried about me disappearing,” Beals said. “But for a few weeks, I had to leave before he woke up, which was hard.”
The TCAT delays and inconsistency has put stress on the workers at Cornell as well. Nikki Sayward is a Risley Dining Room prep cook and said that the delays have gotten to the point where she cannot rely on the night bus to take her home. As someone who is disabled and unable to drive, she has had to rely on other means of transportation.
“One of my good friends has a car who lives with me, so I just pay him $5 and I give him $25 for the week to just drive me home,” Sayward said. “The last 11 bus leaving the Commons right now is 7 p.m., which just seems bonkers to me.”
Looking toward Fall 2023, when TCAT will be announcing its next service calendar, Vanderpool said that he’s hoping to design a schedule that will reduce the need for drivers to work their notoriously long work days, which can sometimes last up to 12 to 14 hours, as well as reduce the need for mandating drivers to work extra shifts to meet service levels.
Vanderpool added that “Riders really deserve to know that we’re doing everything we can to get [TCAT] back to a better place.”