Cornell and Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit announced in a press release on Monday, Oct. 16 that the University will pay more than $3.3 million per year to TCAT for the next four years, effective retroactive to July 1. The TCAT Board of Directors unanimously approved the payment plan during its regular meeting on Sept. 28.
The announcement comes three days after the Cornell Board of Trustees approved the new memorandum of understanding between the University and the City of Ithaca, certifying that Cornell will pay the City of Ithaca $4 million annually through payment in lieu of taxes, following months of negotiations. After the PILOT was informally agreed upon in September, the Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America held a rally on Sept. 18 at Ho Plaza to urge the University to increase their financial contributions to the City of Ithaca.
“Negotiators representing both TCAT and Cornell worked collaboratively to reach a fair and adequate agreement, which gives TCAT time to rebuild service to the levels that University riders and our entire ridership deserve,” said Scot Vanderpool, TCAT general manager, to the Cornell Chronicle. “This agreement clearly demonstrates the University’s support to community public transportation and its commitment to local sustainability goals.”
While the payment will increase by three percent year over year, establishing an increase of about $100,000 per year, there is a potential for higher annual increases. If TCAT meets the target of 1,100 hours of weekday service during its fall and spring service periods for its 10, 30, 81, 82 and 90 routes — considered key routes for Cornell’s campus — annual payment increases could rise to a maximum of 3.75 percent.
Under the new agreement, the University will make a base annual payment of $3.33 million in equal monthly installments. These payments combine with the University’s contribution of almost $1 million as one of TCAT’s three underwriters, with each underwriter paying an equivalent share. This equates to a total $4.32 million contribution in 2023, around 22 percent of TCAT’s annual operating expenses of $19 million, according to TCAT’s press release.
The University will provide this funding in acknowledgment of TCAT’s essential impact on its Cornell-affiliated riders — students, faculty and staff — who make up over 70 percent of TCAT’s annual ridership.
Cornell’s contribution to TCAT subsidizes rides for the Cornell community, according to TCAT’s press release. Faculty and staff ride free on the TCAT at all times, along with any students for whom it is their first year at Cornell — including master’s and doctoral students. Non-qualified students have the option to purchase an annual OmniRide unlimited pass at a discounted rate. All Cornell students can ride the TCAT for free past 6 p.m. on weekdays and at all times on weekends with their student ID card.
“We are very interested in TCAT’s success and value the contribution that they make to our campus community very highly,” said Rick Burgess, vice president for facilities and campus services, in an interview with the Chronicle.
Before the new service agreement, the University committed to paying TCAT about $3.2 million under a multi-year memorandum of understanding signed in 2017, which was set to expire in June 2021. As a change from the past MOU, the new agreement sets up target service levels — including a target number of service hours — to incentivize TCAT to improve its level of service, helping accommodate more riders in the Ithaca community and achieve sustainability goals.
If TCAT’s actual service hours of the five routes surpass the target by 2.5 percent, Cornell will make extra payments for that year. If the service level is more than 2.5 percent below the target, TCAT must offer a credit or refund to Cornell.
“Achieving increased levels of service will not only mean an increase in Cornell’s payments to TCAT but will also result in additional passenger revenue across the system. This, in turn, will help TCAT to expand existing initiatives and create new ones that benefit all in the community,” TCAT’s press release said. “Increased TCAT ridership also means fewer cars on the roads each day; reducing personal auto traffic will support efforts by TCAT, the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County to reach their environmental goals and reduce our area’s collective carbon footprint.”
The agreement expires on June 30, 2027, with Cornell’s evaluation of TCAT’s service level beginning on Jan. 21, 2024 — the start of TCAT’s five-month spring service period next year. Service levels will be assessed three times a year, according to the Chronicle.
“We are grateful to TCAT for the important service it provides to thousands of Cornell students, faculty and staff, as well as to our surrounding communities,” said President Martha Pollack to the Chronicle. “Public transportation is a vital commuting option that helps to reduce traffic congestion and limit our area’s collective carbon footprint. We are committed to an economically sustainable TCAT system and to our ongoing relationship with the city and county in supplying this essential service.”