The Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit reached an agreement on Jan. 20 with its three local donors — the City of Ithaca, Tompkins County and Cornell University — to increase their contributions by five percent for the coming fiscal year.
The three underwriters are obligated to give the same amount of finances each year, as agreed upon in a contract organized in 1991. An eight percent increase was proposed this year to address inflation, supply chain issues and staffing shortages which led to reduced TCAT services. While the city of Ithaca and Tompkins County agreed, Cornell raised concerns based on the TCAT’s budgeting.
Cornell’s Vice President of University Relations Joel M. Malina stated to the Ithaca Times that Cornell would keep up their commitment as an underwriter to the TCAT but was unwilling to drastically increase their financial contribution to eight percent in a Dec. 29 article.
“TCAT has not offered any specific justification for such a large increase in the underwriter contribution,” Malina said.
Furthermore, Malina argues that TCAT already holds adequate funding.
“[TCAT administration] holds approximately $16 million in reserve and fund balance with an additional $15 million in grant funding,” Malina said.
The grant funding came from an $8.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Low or No Emission program and a $7 million grant from the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority. The DOT grant is intended to fund 10 electric buses, while the NY State grant was unspecified.
Decreased ridership due to the pandemic was TCAT’s main driver for more reserve funds. If the yearly revenue is below what is needed to keep the non-profit afloat, additional funds will need to be pulled from the reserve.
According to a TCAT tax report, the Ithaca Times explained that by 2024, TCAT could burn through its reserve funds and consequently face a $3.7 million budget deficit.
Scot Vanderpool, TCAT’s general manager, explained that TCAT respects the decisions of its underwriters.
“[TCAT understands that each contributor makes its financial decision] based on what they determine is reasonable for them to contribute,” Vanderpool said.
However, according to the Ithaca Times, Tompkins County Legislator and TCAT Board Member Dan Klein believes that Cornell’s financial reasoning is unjust.
“Cornell took in approximately $1 billion in donations last year alone,” Klein said. “Cornell receives the biggest benefit by far from TCAT, and they have shown disregard for the financial well-being of TCAT over and over again. Spending one-time money on ongoing operational costs is unsustainable.”
Similarly, many student-led organizations and community organizations have raised concerns about the University’s conservative behavior in negotiations with TCAT. The Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America’s FreeCAT campaign pushes for free TCAT passes for all users.
In a recent letter to the editor, the group called on Cornell for reform. According to the IDSA, Cornell has the largest share of ridership out of any group in the county yet contributes the same amount in underwriter contribution. In addition, Cornell’s serviced properties value stands at a staggering $2.1 billion within the city – yet the University does not pay any property taxes.
Among decreased ridership and staff shortages, TCAT continues to cut routes which disproportionately affect members of the community that are low income.
“I have spoken to elderly individuals who have waited outside for over an hour for the bus that never came because the route had been cut that morning with no notice,” Chair of the Democratic Socialists of Americas FreeCAT campaign Sabrina Leddy grad said.
Leddy believes that this would allow a better integration of Cornell students into the city and support low income areas across the county by providing free transport.
“If and when we have the capability of going fare free we will likely need more help from our underwriters,” Vanderpool stated in an email to The Sun.
A TCAT news release claimed that given the current uncertainties and the fact that fare free would put additional strains on the system, it is not feasible and recommended to launch free fare busing now.
Vanderpool stated that the eight percent increase was not directly related to making the TCAT fare free.
For now, the underwriter funding for this fiscal year has been settled at a five percent increase by the city, the county and Cornell all while TCAT continues to cut routes.