November 20, 2022

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Re: ‘Students Rally for Free TCAT’

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To the Editor:

In the Sun article from Oct. 24, “Students Rally for Free TCAT,” Cornell Vice President of University Relations Joel M. Malina is quoted as saying, “Cornell’s contribution goes far beyond those of the City and County in the form of annual fare payments to TCAT, which subsidize the cost of Cornell’s OmniRide bus pass available to employees and students. Of the funds paid to TCAT by the three partners, Cornell provides 70 percent of the total.” 

This statement suggests, misleadingly, that Cornell is a generous contributor to the budgets of Ithaca and Tompkins County. As Cornell-affiliated activists with the campaign for free TCAT, which we call “freeCAT,” we write to correct this impression. In fact, Cornell continues to nickel-and-dime our community while enjoying a taxpayer subsidized campus transportation service. 

Malina’s statement reads like claiming your child’s lunch money as a donation to their school. It would be more accurate to say that Cornell, like the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County, provides a 6 percent share of TCAT’s annual budget, while also serving as the largest customer of TCAT, buying their staff and students rides.

Moreover, to purchase these fares, Cornell is paying a reduced rate — a bulk discount. As a result, riders not affiliated with Cornell — for example, lower-wage workers in Collegetown or at the stores near Route 13 — pay more per ride than Cornell students and staff. By purchasing bulk fares at a discount, Cornell serves its own interests and leaves the community behind.

Finally and most importantly, the equal thirds relationship cited by Malina refers to the original sin of TCAT: we need to go back to its founding to understand the sleight of hand here.

TCAT was formed in 1998 by consolidating three mass transit systems under one umbrella: Ithaca Transit (City of Ithaca), TOMTRAN (Tompkins County) and CU Transit (Cornell). Under the initial agreement, each of the three participants would contribute a third of the cost. 

This arrangement, however, unduly benefited Cornell. In addition to local sources, TCAT receives approximately 50 percent of its funds from New York State and the Federal Government. Since Cornell is a tax-free institution, taxpayers are literally subsidizing the service that Cornell then purchases at a discount.

The article concludes by noting that “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.” This staggering figure, it notes, is about equal to the “total amount of taxable property in the city combined.” Although property tax rates vary, it’s safe to say that Cornell pays a much lower percentage of their properties’ value than homeowners and local businesses. We submit that this is the root of town-gown tension in Ithaca.

The freeCAT campaign was designed both to help Ithaca meet its climate targets and to establish some equity between Cornell University and the surrounding community. In order to meet these goals, TCAT would have to be expanded significantly. Instead, we have suffered repeated, drastic cutbacks in service over recent years, most recently the sweeping service cuts in August followed by further cuts in October.

We demand accessible transit and fare elimination for all, primarily funded by a larger contribution from Cornell University.

Heat map of TCAT ridership by bus stop, demonstrating the overwhelming concentration of ridership on Cornell’s campus, with additional hotspots downtown (TCAT 2017 Annual Report).

Jane Glaubman Ph.D. ‘19, Ithaca resident

Brian Kardon,research staff, Ithaca resident

Sabrina Leddy grad, freeCAT campaign chair

John Monkovic, Cornell Dining staff