August 28, 2014

Cornell Will Not Increase Subsidies to TCAT

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Updated with additional information Friday

The University will not further subsidize TCAT for free first-year student bus passes, President David Skorton said 12 days after he announced on May 9 — in front of student protesters at Day Hall — that he would work to retain the passes.

“I cannot at this time find a way to subsidize TCAT beyond what we are already paying,” Skorton wrote in response to a University Assembly resolution in support of the bus passes in May.

Currently, the University pays TCAT an annual total of $3.43 million — $830,000 as part of an agreement with City of Ithaca, Tompkins County and TCAT and $2.6 million as a bulk fare for all Cornell ridership — according to University Spokesperson John Carberry.

However, since 2011, there has been an increase in the number of students who ride TCAT, Carberry said. Ridership reached over four million total rides in 2013, increasing more than 1.6 million rides since 2004, according to data provided by TCAT.

Despite the increase in ridership, the University has not increased the subsidies it pays to the bus service. As a result, Cornell’s payment per ride has decreased from $1 per ride in 2010 to 84 cents currently, according to Carberry. TCAT officials said they are worried that this will further increase TCAT’s deficit.

Call to Action

In March, the University Assembly deliberated over a resolution that would have eliminated the free bus passes for first-year students.

By passing the resolution, the assembly hoped that the University would help address TCAT’s $740,000 deficit — approximately $500,000 of which was a direct result from the increased freshman ridership, according to George Ruizcalderon ’15, a former U.A. member.

However, following several student protests and lengthy discussions the U.A. ultimately passed a resolution in support of the first-year bus passes, calling on the University to increase budget transparency and find a long-term solution to the deficit. Following the U.A., the Student Assembly also passed a resolution supporting the first-year TCAT passes.

The U.A. and S.A. sent the resolutions to Skorton — who had 30 days to respond to their recommendations. In the meantime, students held “mock bake sales,” gathered over 550 signatures on an online petition and organized a May Day protest.

Some students — worried that Skorton would not respond to the resolution before the end of the 2013-14 academic year — gathered in front of Day Hall on May 9. Skorton publicly addressed the students and announced his intention to continue the bus passes.

Following Skorton’s announcement, students said they were “optimistic” about increased subsidies from the University.

“His announcement … was definitely a victory on many fronts — for TCAT workers, for students and for Ithaca in general,” said Nadia Shebaro ’15 in May. “It’s important to note that the reason we were trying so hard to get this decision before the end of the year is because the United Automobile Workers is starting contract negotiations in June on behalf of TCAT workers, and this outcome will definitely help them to be successful there. Of course it is also great that next year’s freshmen will actually be given the free bus passes that were advertised to them.”

A Growing Deficit

On Thursday, the TCAT Board of Directors passed a resolution asking the University to find a way to increase its payments to reach $1 per ride by 2015.

The resolution passed 5-3, just barely met the required five votes to pass. The three board members who voted against this resolution — Kyu-Jung Whang, Kellie Page and David Howe — are also all current Cornell employees. Whang serves as both the chair of the TCAT Board of Directors and as Cornell Vice President of Facilities; Page is the associate vice president of finance and administration for Cornell’s Division of Student and Academic Services; Howe is the assistant dean of finance and administration at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

According to the resolution, if no changes are made in TCAT’s income, its current $740,000 deficit will double in the next four years. If Cornell had paid $1 per ride in 2014, TCAT would only have one third of the current deficit.

Whang asked some of the members of the board — including Frank Proto ’65, vice chairman of the TCAT Board of Directors — to meet with Skorton over the next month to discuss the issue.

“We really just want to open the door to sit down and talk with the University with regard to the contribution that accurately reflects the increase in ridership,” Proto said. “The ridership has gone up something like 26 to 29 percent. To reflect this, the fee should be about $3.1 million [not $2.6 million].”

However, Proto said it was “a little hard” to completely blame the shortfall on the University.

“Cornell is a victim of its own success,” Proto said. “Promoting public transit has been a real positive thing. Everyone is interested in lack of emissions and getting people off the road.”

Proto said TCAT hopes not to cut routes that run through Cornell and that Cornell does not stops offering the first-year passes. Since TCAT receives money per ride and per mile from the state government, reducing Cornell ridership — which accounts for 71 percent of all ridership — would also reduce TCAT’s funding, according to Patty Poist, communications and marketing Manager for the TCAT.

Uncertainty for Drivers

TCAT’s financial troubles may affect bus drivers, since the United Automobile Workers is currently in collective bargaining negotiations, according to Poist.

“TCAT’s financial troubles will eventually affect bus drivers as well as the entire organization,” Poist said. “As it stands, the UAW is currently in negotiations with a team made up of TCAT management, TCAT’s attorney and a labor consultant.”

The board usually approves a budget in December. Since the budget is in flux depending on Cornell’s payments, the board members said they do not know how the University’s decision will affect UAW members.

“It could affect our bottom line. But since we don’t have all the pieces together on the new contract … I really don’t know how this will affect TCAT personnel,” Proto said.

This uncertainty worries many, including Michael Ferrer ’16.

“By not taking responsibility for the financial problems that Cornell has caused for TCAT, the administration is effectively saying that they don’t care about our bus drivers,” he said.

‘Not the End’

Many students were disappointed that the University claimed to not have sufficient funds to increase its payments to the TCAT.

“President Skorton’s decision does not reflect the verbal agreement between organizers and administration discussed outside of Day Hall on the day of the study-in. Students decided not to occupy his office because they believed that Skorton would keep his word and fund first-year bus passes,” Ferrer said. “The decision to keep bus passes without funding them makes a mockery of the student outcry against the administ­ration’s financial priorities.”

Some students are also seeking clarification on what they call Skorton’s “vague” decision.

“His verbal agreement to us last semester was that he would keep the bus passes. This was made with the understanding that this can only happen if subsidies are increased. And he knew that full well,” said Rudy Gerson ’15, a student involved in the protests. “If this is his way of finding a linguistic or bureaucratic loophole, I would be sorely disappointed. I would like clarification.”

S.A. President Sarah Balik ’15 said the S.A. will address the issue that affects all Cornell students.

“I can assure you that several representatives are already working on new potential solutions for the problem,” Balik said.