Story by Brian Crandall and Kelsey O’Connor.
ITHACA, N.Y. — With a growing population, aging fleet, strong need for a new facility and ambitions to be more sustainable, Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit has a lot of work ahead in the next few years. A recently released strategic plan gives insight into some of the transit company’s plans and goals through 2030.
The report is the result of a team including the Sam Schwartz City Strategies consulting group, and local consultant Jean McPheeters, and the gist of it is to figure out what TCAT is doing well, where it needs to improve, and how can it achieve those goals, while avoiding future obstacles.
With the push for urban mixed-use development in Tompkins County, it’s important that TCAT remains a part of the conversation. Between 2015 and 2023, more than 140 projects have been built or are planned, which would bring an estimated 10,000 people or more into Tompkins County. That’s a challenge for TCAT, the backbone of local mass transit.
While TCAT needs to keep up with the demand for transportation, it is also dealing with the challenge of its aging fleet of buses and inadequate facility, TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool said.
“We’ve got not only buses to replace, but we have to add to our fleet because of what we see coming down the road,” Vanderpool said.
In the coming years, TCAT is planning to boost its fleet with electric buses. In August, TCAT received a $2.3 million federal grant to purchase three electric buses. Moving to electric buses will be a significant capital investment, the plan notes, but transitioning the fleet will have much less of an environmental impact than the current diesel buses. The full fleet may not be electric by 2030, but the plan says 2035 is a possibility. When it comes to sustainability and some other initiatives, Vanderpool said he wants TCAT to be a leader.
“We’re setting an example for the rest of the public, the rest of the community to follow,” he said.
To its credit, consultants and a year of public interviews and two workshops have demonstrated that TCAT does some things well — it has a well-planned bus network, solid funding sources locally, and some of the highest ridership per capita in New York State (outside of New York City).
However, bus stops lack amenities, and there’s a big need to upgrade its infrastructure for bus service and maintenance. The growing student and senior populations create expansion opportunities, and TCAT slots in nicely with sustainability goals, but ride apps, uncertain federal funding, growth in traffic congestion as the suburban core grows out, and autonomous vehicles pose short-term and long-term risks.
The plan offers more than 130 short-term and long-term considerations for TCAT to consider over the next few years (it also encourages refreshing the strategic plan after five years). Some are new, some are expansions of existing initiatives, and some are just suggestions to stay the course. On the personnel side, the plan includes revisions to organizational plans and recruitment/retention efforts, increasing human resources and IT staff, and establishing strategic teams to determine and work on personnel goals.
Meanwhile, on the service side, the strategic plan suggests taking a closer look at high-traffic, high-frequency routes, working with municipalities to improve bus stop accessibility and maintenance, and a rider “Bill of Rights” to establish what passengers should expect on any given trip. It also advocates that TCAT play a greater role in the review of local development plans to make them mass transit-friendly. TCAT is also encouraged to explore “park-and-rides” and better bus stop amenities like real-time signage and bike racks. Not unlike the parking system in the city or Cornell’s campus, the plan asks TCAT to consider a smartphone app to pay for fares, a sort of farebox alternative.
Interconnectivity between different modes of transportation
If a recent packed presentation on the future of transportation is any indicator, local residents are eager for transportation innovation. At the talk, which featured Timothy Papandreou, CEO of Emerging Transportation Advisors and former chief innovation officer for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the key theme was multi-modal transportation. This could look like a local resident walking to a bike-share dock and pedaling to the bus station, where a bus will take them to their final stop.
Connectivity between different modes of transportation is one of Vanderpool’s goals for the future, he said. Outside of TCAT, Ithaca and Tompkins County have several transportation options for people without a car or with mobility limitations, like LimeBike, Gadabout, Ithaca Carshare, or ride sharing. Even still, transportation can still be difficult for people in some areas of the county.
Vanderpool said he would like to see all these separate services connected so that it’s easy for a local resident to get from Point A to Point B via multiple modes of transportation.
“I envision that we can get just about anywhere with the touch of a button at some point,” he said.
This concept falls under Mobility as a Service, which is described in the plan as a “concept related to bringing travelers’ choices for transportation into one platform to provide the most options.” It says further that enhancing the connections between TCAT and other modes of transportation “is essential today and will become increasingly important in the future, given trends in transportation technology and mobility choices.”
Facility upgrade or move will be a key decision for TCAT
Something The Ithaca Voice has covered before is TCAT’s need for a new facility, and that’s still a major component of the Strategic Plan. Vanderpool said though they have 54 buses, the current facility only technically has space for 42.
The plan recommends opening a smaller satellite facility in the greater Ithaca area by 2022, while at the same time moving forward with proposals for a new location or expansion. The only firm recommendation for a new facility is that it strive to incorporate green building elements for a more sustainable footprint.
At Common Council on Wednesday, Alderperson Ducson Nguyen, who recently took over as chairperson of the TCAT board of directors, said the decision about whether to expand their facility or seek a new location will be one of the most important decisions for TCAT this year and maybe in its history.
The city, county and Cornell’s shared agreement covers 18 percent of operating revenue, the state 35 percent, the federal government 11 percent, fares 11 percent, and Cornell covers the rest through reimbursement of student fares (so Cornell ends up providing about a quarter of TCAT’s revenue).
Capital project funding, however, is almost entirely from New York State and the federal government. The plan suggests that to diversify risk, TCAT should be approaching other major employers and schools and asking them to pay their fair share as well. Grant opportunities will be key for building projects and bus fleet renewal, but the plan is mindful that these grants are quite competitive.
As the disclaimer that often goes with any type of strategic or comprehensive plan, these are less about exact details, and more about guiding planning and hashing out organizational goals for the next few years. Still, if TCAT is to remain competitive in an ever-changing world, having a sense of what it’s doing well, where it needs improvement, and what it can do to keep up with the times, will help ensure it makes to 2030 and beyond.
To read the full plan, click here.