TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Local advocates are continuing to raise the call for Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) to transition to fare-free bus service and for Cornell University to contribute substantially more financial support to TCAT in order to make that happen.
And it seems that at least 600 people agree with that stance.
The Ithaca chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) organized a rally of about 30 people on the Ithaca Commons on Tuesday, after which they marched to a meeting of the Tompkins County Legislature where they took to the public comment section to express their demands to county officials. While there, they delivered a petition with over 600 signatures from people who agreed that they wanted to see free bus transit, and for Cornell to pay more.
Advocates of the free bus service argue that it would promote more sustainable transportation, particularly benefit lower income residents in the county, and increase ridership at TCAT.
However, the calls for TCAT to go fare-free come after TCAT’s Board of Directors has made their position clear months ago: while the idea seems worth exploring, now is not the time.
A report on whether TCAT should explore going fare free was released in December 2022. The study, conducted by Tompkins County Legislator and former TCAT Board member Dan Klein (D-Danby) identified several factors that make it infeasible for TCAT to get rid of fares, including decreased ridership post pandemic, staffing shortages, and uncertain financial conditions that the bus service has to contend with.
Sabrina Leddy, Chair of the DSA’s FreeCAT campaign, addressed the Legislature on Tuesday saying, “We have heard repeatedly from TCAT that the resources for fare free and expanded TCAT don’t exist, while we watch Cornell reap the benefits of a collective transit system and simultaneously sit on billions of amassed wealth.”
Leddy, and other speakers demanding fare-free bus service, emphasized Cornell’s tax exempt status, and the large land holdings that it has in Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca. The issue of how much Cornell — which has about a $10 billion endowment — contributes to the city and county in payments in lieu of taxes is a perennial town and gown issue.
Speakers associated with the TCAT campaign urged the legislature to play “hardball” in their negotiations with the university.
“Be brave, put up a fight, please stand with us. We aren’t afraid of Cornell, you shouldn’t be either,” said Leddy, who is a Ph. D. student at Cornell.
Tompkins County Legislator Mike Sigler (R-Lansing), who attended Tuesday’s rally as a spectator, expressed some skepticism that the DSA’s methods would prove effective.
“Should Cornell pay more? I don’t have a doubt that they can. I think they should, but will they? It’s not a matter what someone should do, it’s a matter of what is in it for Cornell.”
“I would love to be able to ride for free, it makes things a lot easier but it’s getting more expensive to ride the service,” said Sigler. He added, “Radical change costs money. That’s the problem.”
Cornell is one of the three financial underwriters of TCAT, along with the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County. TCAT is a non-profit corporation, and all three entities contribute to TCAT’s budget and each are able to appoint three members to TCAT’s nine-member Board of Directors. Each appointment must be approved by a vote from the sitting board members.
Collectively, the three underwriters contribute about $3 million to TCAT, which makes up about 16% of the bus company’s projected $19.2 million budget for 2023. Cornell also contributes an additional $3.3 million to TCAT each year as a part of the Cornell bus pass program. The pass allows first year students at the university, faculty and staff to ride TCAT for free.
In his report studying what it would take for TCAT to go fare-free, Klein determined that Cornell would need to maintain the contributions it makes to TCAT for the Cornell bus pass program in order to make a transition to a fare free model. Around 70% of TCAT’s riders are affiliated with Cornell.
The single largest source of funding for TCAT comes through New York State Operating Assistance, which makes up about 30% of TCAT’s operating budget. TCAT is eligible for this funding due to its affiliation with local municipalities, which has led FreeCAT advocates to argue that Cornell is seeing a bus service that largely benefits its campus subsidized by public dollars.
Jack Turner, a freshman student at Cornell University, addressed the legislature on Tuesday saying that, “Cornell has a lot of ridership through TCATc but they’re not paying nearly as much as they should.”
The position of the university, though, is that Cornell contributes meaningful financial support to TCAT. Responding to a request for comment on the FreeCAT rally and the petition delivered to the county legislator, Joel Malina, Vice President for University Relations at Cornell stated, “Cornell provides significant financial resources to TCAT, totaling in excess of $4.3 million in the current fiscal year. Of the funds paid to TCAT by the three partners, Cornell provides 70% of the total.”
Malina also said, “Cornell greatly appreciates its partnership with the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County that enables this essential transportation resource, providing a critical, sustainable commuting option that not only helps to reduce traffic congestion on campus but also reduces our carbon footprint and that of the surrounding area.”
In response to a request for comment from The Voice TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool said that he didn’t have anything new to say about the FreeCAT movement after Tuesday’s rally, but emphasized that “we really need to get back to pre-pandemic bus operator numbers before we can move towards free service.”
Vanderpool said that TCAT currently has 56 full-time bus drivers, and 9 in training. He shared that the organization’s goal is to have 72 full-time drivers on the road for Fall 2023. TCAT used to employ 90 drivers in 2018.
In addition to the bottleneck of drivers, Klein wrote in his report TCAT would potentially need more buses to meet the rise in demand. TCAT’s current facilities are crowded, creating another limiting factor, Klein’s report found.
Klein, who attended Tuesday’s rally as a spectator, said, “Cornell does need to pay a fair share for services in Ithaca and the county. FreeCAT might not be my number one choice where their money should go, but the principle behind it I support.”
Klein, who is not a member of the Ithaca chapter of the DSA, was skeptical whether local socialists would be able to garner wider public support for the cause, but said he was hopeful that the demand for Cornell to contribute more to the services it draws from would generate more engagement. (Correction: A previous version of this story included an unfinished sentence here, which has been changed)
“I do question whether its the best way to reach the general public but, I don’t know, who am I? I’m an old guy. These people are young. They have energy,” said Klein.