December 2, 2004

In Consolidation, TCAT to Go Nonprofit

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Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit, operators of the familiar blue and white buses that service Cornell students as well as residents of the city of Ithaca and Tompkins County, will become a nonprofit organization on January 1. Unfortunately for students excited about the possibility of a fare decrease, the change will have no effect on the wallets of riders.

The new organization, TCAT, Inc., will still provide the same “service level, routes, etc.” as the old system, said Barbara Blanchard, chair of the TCAT board and interim chair of TCAT, Inc.

The driving force for TCAT going nonprofit was a need for consolidation of the current transit structure. As of now, there are three different transit systems — Ithaca Transit, Cornell Transit and TomTransit — that are run by the city of Ithaca, Cornell University and Tompkins County, respectively.

In the early days, the three bus systems had overlapping bus routes. However, the regulators of the three transit systems realized the inherent inefficiency of this situation, and in 1996 they reached a consolidation agreement that effectively made one transit system for all the areas on the bus routes. Blanchard explained that they are “three equal partners, and they supplemented the budget that is not covered by the federal budget, the state budget and fares.”

Yet the agreement was “a kind of veneer to make the buses look the same,” Blanchard said. These transit systems had different salaries and retirement benefits for their drivers, and more importantly, different safety rules and repercussions if those rules were broken. “The separation created managerial issues over time,” said Hank Dullea ’61, interim chairperson of TCAT Inc.’s personnel committee and chairperson of the current TCAT’s budget committee. The necessity of having one organization to manage all the routes became clear “in the aftermath of two terrible accidents,” Dullea added.

The accidents, one involving a driver with alcohol and drug problems and the other with a driver who did not wear a safety belt, highlighted the importance of uniform safety rules for employees of all three transit systems.

In a letter dated March 26, 2004, Joseph Boardman, the New York State transportation commissioner told Tim Joseph, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, that “the Public Transportation Safety Board has recently advised me that Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit TCAT Safety Program Plan is unacceptable.”

Indeed, the PTSB demanded that the transit systems “change structure to be a single employer” or else suffer a “withholding of state financial aid,” Dullea said.

The threat was carried out when a quarter of the state aid, which adds $2 million annually to TCAT, was withheld in the summer of 2004.

Responding to pressure from the PTSB, TCAT decided to form a nonprofit organization that would consolidate the management of the three transit systems and be “a single employer for everyone providing that service,” Dullea said.

Essentially, the term nonprofit describes “a way of organizing a structure,” Blanchard explained. No public transportation system makes a profit, and Dullea said that TCAT runs a deficit of about $1.5 million annually.

Blanchard noted that the new organization will have about 125 employees and pay drivers according to Cornell Transit’s wage scale, which is $2 more than Ithaca Transit.

However, drivers that have accrued retirement benefits from long years at their transit service may lose some of those benefits if they elect to continue at TCAT, Inc. This concern is addressed in part by the city, the county and Cornell each providing $100,000 to the new organization for benefit coverage.

The decision to become nonprofit was made only after attempts to introduce state legislation creating TCAT as a public benefit organization failed. A major reason for the failure was opposition from unions such as CSEA who feared that the employees of Ithaca Transit would lose jobs and retirement benefits from the consolidation, according to Blanchard.

From the viewpoint of the unions, “this legislature would have represented de facto union busting, and the state level CSEA opposed the legislation based on the fear that it would set a precedent,” according to the Nov. 17 Ithaca Times.

Even now, management at TCAT, Inc. and the two unions, CSEA and UAW, cannot see eye-to-eye on many issues. A Nov. 23 editorial from the Ithaca Journal warned, “if the interested parties don’t resolve this issue quickly, come January, hard-working people who depend on TCAT to go to work, visit their doctors or buy their groceries may not be able to have dependable bus service.”

Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Staff Writer