As families filled Ho Plaza for the start of Family Weekend on Friday, around 45 students, employees and alumni from groups including Do Better Cornell, Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America, Climate Justice Cornell and the Basic Needs Coalition gathered to rally for free public transportation for Cornell students and staff, more resources for low-income students and environmental justice.
FreeCAT is an initiative supported by the IDSA, Cornell Progressives, Sunrise Ithaca and Climate Justice Cornell calling for a fare-free and expanded transit system in Tompkins County, funded by Cornell University.
Students stood together with signs reading, “Free and expanded TCAT 4 all,” “Need-based aid does not meet basic needs,” “Climate justice now” and other slogans advocating for progressive goals on campus. As they stood across from a “Welcome Families” sign at the entrance of Willard Straight Hall, University President Martha Pollack was inside for a family weekend reception event.
Multiple tour groups and Cornell families had congregated on Ho Plaza when the ralliers began their chanting: “Any person, any study? Empty promise,” “Martha, Martha, you can’t hide, we can see your ugly side,” ”Pay your fair share, we’re not going anywhere” and “One, two, three, four, Cornell needs to feed us more.”
Ralliers also passed out sheets addressed to the “Cornell Family” with information on the FreeCAT initiative and the goals of the Basic Needs Coalition to students and families passing Ho Plaza.
Cornell Progressives founder and 4th-Ward Alderperson Jorge DeFendini ’22 then gave a speech advocating for Cornell to provide free bus passes for all Cornell-affiliated riders and to contribute more to the TCAT budget. Although Cornell-affiliated riders comprise 75 percent of public transit users in Ithaca, Cornell currently pays one-third of TCAT’s annual budget.
“A transit system is a public good. It is a service that serves a societal function,” DeFendini said. “[Public services] are made to serve people, not profits. This idea seems to be missing here in Ithaca, specifically at Cornell, where bus services are being cut, drivers are quitting en masse and college students are begging for basic needs instead of studying and joining clubs.”
DeFendini also pointed out that TCAT is currently experiencing a driver shortage and has been implementing massive service cuts to routes frequented by Cornellians. Drivers regularly work 13-hours-a-day and, before the service cuts, they were mandated to work six days a week.
Cornell contributed around $4.3 million to TCAT funding in the current fiscal year, according to Vice President of University Relations Joel M. Malina. He said Cornell also provides $152,000 annually for capital expenses, equal to the amounts that the City and the County contribute.
“Cornell’s contribution goes far beyond those of the City and County in the form of annual fare payments to TCAT, which subsidizes the cost of Cornell’s OmniRide bus pass available to employees and students,” Malina said. “Of the funds paid to TCAT by the three partners, Cornell provides 70% of the total.”
First-year students receive a complimentary pass and all students can ride TCAT at no cost after 6 p.m. on weekdays and anytime Saturday and Sundays.
Students in the FreeCAT initiative noted that the University promised free TCAT passes to all students in 2005 but revoked the policy in 2008.
Climate Justice Cornell member Louisa Howe ’26 then spoke about the environmental impacts of an inefficient public transit system.
“A public transit system that is fully funded and easy to navigate would mean that people use it instead of cars,” Howe said. “As an institution committed to carbon neutrality by 2035 — an institution that has a disproportionate environmental impact in terms of land use and resource consumption on Tompkins County — it is necessary for Cornell to pay without hiking up costs for students.”
Due to its status as a nonprofit institution, Cornell is exempt from property taxes but owns property in the city with an assessed value of about $2.1 billion — roughly equal to the total amount of taxable property in the city combined. In lieu of paying property taxes, Cornell contributed a voluntary payment of about $1.3 million to the city in 2018, with about $802,000 earmarked for fire services, according to the Ithaca Voice.
To conclude the rally, a member from the Basic Needs Coalition, who did not wish to be named due to fear of retaliation from University officials, delivered a speech about survey results from this past summer of low-income students expressing their hardships faced at Cornell.
The survey found that there are students on campus dealing with food insecurity, homelessness, lack of adequate healthcare and student debt. The organization is calling for a physical basic needs center on campus and referenced the University’s $9.8 billion endowment to cover the cost.
”The current resources provided by Cornell are either inaccessible, ineffective or inadequate,” the student said. “We urge Cornell to take immediate action to address the overwhelming need of low-income and minority students here on campus.”