ITHACA, N.Y. — Let’s take a quick snapshot of commuting patterns in Tompkins County.  About 60% of folks drive to work alone, with another 10% carpooling. About 16% walk to work, and 1% bike. However, the proportions vary quite a bit depending on where ones lives.  In the city of Ithaca, the proportion of walkers and bikers is much higher. In fact,  at 42.4%, Ithaca has one of the highest proportions of walkers for any metropolitan area in the country. Seperately are the 15,000 or so in-commuters, the vast majority of whom drive. About 7% of working residents primarily use public transit to get to their jobs – i.e. the bus system, Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit, TCAT.

TCAT fills a gap between the other more common ways of commuting – not all folks are physically able to walk to work, and not all have the capacity or desire to maintain a personal vehicle. In the case of Downtown or the college campuses, dealing with the heck and a half that is paying for space in a far-flung parking lot or garage sometimes isn’t worth the effort.  With a public and private push for urban density by encouraging building in established areas instead of former farmland on the edge of the county, that naturally creates traffic, potential parking difficulties, and a push to alleviate those problems.

That’s an aspect where TCAT has been able to help. The system has enjoyed an increase in the number of riders in the past decade – from less than 3 million in 2007, to over 4 million in 2016, a pace well above national trends. Even as ridership has grown, it’s done a good job performing its duties, receiving national awards for its safety and efficiency. But as Tompkins County grows, demand also grows, for bus service to more areas, and for more frequent service to those areas already served. That means more buses, more equipment to maintain buses, and more drivers and mechanics.

There is a problem with that, however. TCAT’s building at 737 Willow Avenue is out of room, and has been full for five years. As they informed the county legislature’s Planning Committee last week, they need more room, either in an expanded facility, or a new facility. TCAT management strongly prefers the latter.

“Our facility at Willow Avenue is not adequate for our current needs, so it will be a challenge to provide room for more buses based on the additional service needs we expect in the future. TCAT also is looking to move towards electric buses and charging stations, which is something our current facility will not be able to accommodate,” said TCAT Executive Director Scot Vanderpool.

Interior of the TCAT garage at night. Image courtesy of Patty Poist.

According to the report to the Planning Committee, the current facility, shared with the Gadabout bus service for the elderly and disabled, is ill-suited for expansion because its lot is too small; buses have to be stored somewhere, and TCAT is already using an old DPW parking lot to make ends meet. It also sits right along the water, and the building, built in 1992, wasn’t located or designed with floodplains in mind. All it takes is a good-sized flood, and not only will most of the bus fleet be permanently out of commission, but all the gas, oil and other fluids will be floating around the lake and inlet. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Ithaca’s Department of Public Works next door is also looking at a move.

The reasons for a move are pretty clear, but the process itself is a bit more complicated. For one, there’s the cost of a new facility – it may reach upwards of $50 million. TCAT is fairly limited in its geographic options because the buses need to be close to the urban center where most routes are, but away from natural and residential areas. It also needs a large, flat piece of land above a flood plain for the sake of its vehicles and equipment. Unfortunately, getting $50 million is well beyond what its primary stakeholders, the city, the county, and Cornell, can provide. TCAT would need to apply for highly competitive state and federal grants in order to make the plan viable.

“TCAT has worked with consultants to complete some of the smaller prerequisite steps such an assessment of our current facility and an initial set of requirements that provide an idea of the size, price, and site characteristics of a new facility,” said Vanderpool.

“A critical next step, and perhaps the most challenging, is to secure the capital dollars required to make a project of this size a reality. TCAT would mostly likely need to secure funding from a range of sources including federal, state and local monies. We would need political support from our local funders to help us make the case that this project is essential to the long-term growth of the area. Another key step is the location of a parcel that would meet our needs…[a]gain, we will be working closely with our local funders to identify and gain site control of a workable parcel for this new facility. We are in the early stage of this process, but we are actively looking for funding and sites that meet our requirements.”

As for a timeline? Well, as one often sees with grant-dependent projects, there isn’t really clear time frame available. “Our timeline is based on the progress of securing funding. There’s no way to predict right now when the funding will be secured, although the need is evident,” replied Vanderpool.

It is something that county, city and Cornell will need to think about in the upcoming months; the situation’s not getting any easier. It’s hard to add students, workers and residents if the area lacks the travel infrastructure to support them, and unless they plan on convincing the state to build some big highways again (funding was given for a West Hill expressway, but the project was stalled for years and eventually cancelled because of massive and sustained grassroots opposition), improved mass transit will have to be a part of that conversation.  Otherwise, there may not be enough room to keep the wheels on the bus going round and round.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.