Despite cuts in service and a steep drop in ridership, the Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit system has worked to overcome pandemic challenges and continue to serve the Ithaca area.
Although it offered free service for six months, TCAT’s ridership has nevertheless remained at about 10 percent of its typical levels since the beginning of the pandemic. According to General Manager Scot Vanderpool, the meager results reflect semi-permanent changes in work patterns and fear of catching the virus.
“The biggest fear is … getting COVID-19 … but the biggest reason people aren’t riding is the fact that people are telecommuting, and employers are allowing folks to work from home,” Vanderpool said.
TCAT created a number of safety procedures in its fleet of 50 buses, using a portion of the $7.9 million it received in CARES Act funding to purchase electrostatic disinfectant spray and plexiglass shields. The service has implemented a slew of other policies since the pandemic’s beginning in March to keep TCAT afloat amid plummeting ridership and escalating expenses.
According to Vanderpool, service was cut by 50 percent over the summer, while routes were cancelled, schedules reduced and bus occupancy limited to 20 passengers. Employees were laid off, hiring was frozen for administrative and operational positions and overtime was eliminated.
Scaling back operations in anticipation of low ridership was the key to remaining financially solvent during the early months of coronavirus, Vanderpool said. And six months later, the number of miles driven by the bus service has returned to 90 percent of normal levels, even if use continues to remain low.
“Our goal is to keep going with our service levels as much as possible,” Vanderpool said. “I don’t want to take anything away from anybody.”
In an effort to allay COVID-19 concerns and win back riders, TCAT put out ads on TV, radio and the sides of its buses to underline its commitment to safety. It also worked with Cornell, Ithaca College and Tompkins County Community College to encourage their students to return to TCAT.
Vanderpool said that marketing is a “strategic” and “critical” piece of TCAT’s plan to increase ridership to pre-pandemic levels. “We wanted to make sure that people were aware of what we’ve done … it was important to try to get people back,” he said.
Although major reductions in ridership and cancelled fares have had a negative impact on TCAT’s revenues, its finances nevertheless remain in fairly good shape.
This is mainly because passenger fares and Cornell’s student-fare reimbursement program accounted for less than a third of TCAT’s total $14.5 million dollar revenue in 2017. Instead the greatest share of funding — ranging between 32 and 45 percent, depending on the year — comes from New York’s Statewide Transit Operation Assistance Program, which subsidizes local transportation systems based on the number of passengers served and miles traveled.
Because the program contains a “hold harmless” provision that enables the Department of Transportation to defer a reduction in earnings based on this formula for up to one year, TCAT has been able to receive funding based on last year’s much higher level of ridership and service.
Even so, financial difficulties posed by the pandemic have forced TCAT to put some long-term, capital investment projects on hold. The service, for example, sidelined plans to move TCAT’s current operations facility located near the Newman Municipal Golf Course to a new, bigger facility.
However, other projects are continuing as planned. On Aug. 30, TCAT rolled out a pilot of its TConnect program, which will offer on-demand shuttle service between specified pickup spots in rural areas and drop-offs along busier main lines. The plan could make public transportation more accessible to rural and low-income residents, while decreasing TCAT’s operational costs and carbon footprint.
In addition, Vanderpool said that TCAT is “still on target” to meet its goal of replacing its buses with a fully electric fleet by 2035. According to Vanderpool, TCAT plans to receive seven Proterra Electric buses in March, but if ridership remains low, may opt to purchase smaller buses.
Vanderpool said that a supportive community and a commitment to improving service are going to be two of TCAT’s most important assets going forward.
“This is all about change for us right now,” Vanderpool said. “I’m going to stay optimistic. Our community is diverse, … engaged and understands the importance of transportation.”