ITHACA, N.Y.—The goal is to bring all electric on-demand transit to Ithaca’s West End. The plan is called the Ithaca Electric Transportation Access project. 

The effort is a collaboration between Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT), the Unbroken Promises Initiative (UPI) — a nonprofit focused on addressing social inequities in the City of Ithaca — as well as several other area nonprofits and the City of Ithaca. 

Ithaca’s West End is the site of low income housing developments and has long been identified as an underserved part of the city. The neighborhood stretches out along steep slopes, lacks sidewalk infrastructure in some areas, and is cut off from the rest of the city by the Cayuga Inlet, and the heavily trafficked State Route 13. Its roads favor motorists, and buses have a difficult time navigating the neighborhood’s terrains in some parts, putting a difficult march in between some people and their desire to hop on a TCAT bus.

These are some of the conditions, says Jordan Clemons, President of UPI, that reinforce the economic divide found in parts of the West End, where he grew up. But the idea is that an on demand transit service can begin to tackle that reality.

At the moment, the program is far from getting up and running, but Clemons emphasized that an on demand transportation service would remove the time burden that can come with the need for bus riders to make transfers to get to their destination, and give West End residents a transit option that prioritizes their needs.

“On demand makes the most sense because, from a social, economic and political standpoint, we’re never the priority […] We understand what the barriers are,” said Clemons. 

Many transit services are subsidized through government programs, said Clemons. The largest single source of revenue for TCAT comes from the New York State Operating Assistance fund, amounting to about 30% of its budget

Clemmons said, “Why not create an entity, create a service where it’s specifically geared to get people to learn from their day to day essential stops and have it subsidized?

The Ithaca Electric Transportation Access project became possible as the result of a $7 million grant awarded the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) through a competitive application process. This week TCAT — which is the lead agency managing the Ithaca Electric Transportation Access Project — UPI, and other project collaborators hosted members of the public for a community discussion to gather feedback to help shape the program. 

On Tuesday, Coltivare served as the venue for dozens of people to discuss their thoughts on transportation services in the city, and work through survey questions. Attendees filled out questionnaires and heard brief speeches on the mission and offerings of other local transit options, like Ithaca Carshare and Ithaca Bikeshare. Both are programs of the Center for Community Transportation, another collaborator on the Ithaca Electric Transportation Access project. 

Scot Vanderpool, General Manager of TCAT, said that the initiative is creating “a partnership and the collaboration between the community and the transit provider, that’s a big deal for me, I don’t think a lot of other communities have that.”

He said that the bulk of the $7 million grant, around 80% will go to establishing the on demand service, which is intended to be provided by both TCAT and UPI. Grant money is supposed to support UPI to develop and operate a small fleet of six electric vehicles, and 12 electric vans that TCAT will operate for on demand services.

Scot Vanderpool (left) and Jordan Clemons (right). Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

The Center for Community Transportation is supposed to be expanding Ithaca Bikeshare and Ithaca Carshare’s fleets into the West End, but the carshare program is currently in a state of existential limbo as it struggles to acquire care insurance to run its program.

The City of Ithaca has also made a commitment to make investments in pedestrian infrastructure, including around three bus stops on the West End. 

The project’s early startup phase is brimming with big hopes and excitement. Speaking to the room at Coltivare earlier this week, Clemons said that he wanted to “keep things in perspective.”

“Just to be honest, there’s a lot of disconnect in our community. It’s historically been disconnected,” said Clemons. “And what we’re trying to do and what the attempt is, is for different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities and different social-economic backgrounds to attempt to come together, to get on the same page, to roll a project out that is evolutionary.”

Jimmy Jordan

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