March 18, 2004

TCAT Prepares to Unify

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The Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) may soon be restructuring itself from a three-way partnership into a single corporation. The proposed change would unify the organization, which is currently operated as a joint venture between Cornell, the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County. The change would be “completely transparent” to riders and there would be no fare increase, said Rod Ghearing, TCAT’s general manager and chief executive officer.

“We’ve sort of been living together with a document saying how we’re going to share costs,” Ghearing said. “Now we’re going to go ahead and get married,” he explained.

Since its inception in 1998, TCAT has been run by the three groups as a consolidated effort. It is managed by a board of directors, with three representatives from each of the group’s constituents, and its employees are actually employed by one of the three parent organizations — about 65 by Cornell, 25 by the city, and 1 by the county, said Henrik N. Dullea ’61, chairman of the TCAT budget committee and senior consultant to President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77.

This arrangement has severe legal ramifications. According to TCAT board of directors chair Barbara Blanchard, the New York State Public Transportation Safety Board (PTSB) has declared TCAT’s shared organizational structure unsafe. Unless it is amended, the PTSB will recommend that the NYS Commissioner of Transportation withhold state funding, which Blanchard said accounts for about a third of TCAT’s budget. According to Blanchard, the PTSB said in a conference call with the TCAT board yesterday that it expected substantial progress by its next meeting, which is on May 19.

Plans for unification have been in the works for about two years now, Dullea said, but such a move would require legislation at a state level. According to Dullea, a bill to this effect was introduced to the New York State Senate last year. The bill did not pass, in part because there was no companion bill presented to the State Assembly.

Dullea said that the board is working on a new bill to address this concern, as well as others. He added that a draft of this bill has already been created and that the board is discussing the issue with the Senate. Although Dullea did not know how long this process would take, he was confident that the board and Senate will eventually reach an agreement on the bill.

“[The draft]’s a very sound proposal,” Dullea said. “We hope we’ll be able to work it through.”

One of the most important and sensitive points concerning unification is the workers’ union representation. Because TCAT’s workers have different employers, some of them are represented by the Civil Service Employees Association, while others are part of the United Auto Workers. If TCAT is to be one company, said Dullea, it should only have one union to represent its employees.

“The TCAT board of directors felt strongly that there should only be one [union],” Dullea explained.

Blanchard added that the corporation unification would also eliminate internal friction among TCAT’s workers. In the current arrangement, employees have different wages and are subject to different disciplinary action, depending on which employer they work for.

“It’d be like if you had three children with different rules for each one of them and different expectations of how they behave,” Blanchard said.

She added that a strategy assessment that TCAT did of itself stressed the need for unification “from the entire organization,” including drivers, service people and others. Previous attempts to consolidate the company have failed, in part due to the complexities concerning unions, but Blanchard said she was very confident that this time they will succeed.

“We believe that given the severity of the situation, we have no choice but to succeed,” she said, referring to the threat of action from PTSB.

She also stressed that all three TCAT partners “have the same goal in mind: to become one organization,” and that this amicable and focused effort will be crucial in the endeavor.

According to Ghearing, the TCAT was set up as a partnership when it was founded because when the three preexisting bodies consolidated their resources in 1998, they did not feel that they had the authority to fully unify and create a single organization. He added, however, that such a unified organization is common for public transportation systems.

Ghearing explained that the unified organization would be governed by the same board of directors that currently manages TCAT. Since the three groups have already completed consolidating their resources, there will not be any downsizing involved in the consolidation.

Archived article by Yuval Shavit