ITHACA, N.Y. — Downtown Ithaca is in something of a pickle. For one, it’s growing. While that’s certainly not a bad thing, with more workers and more residents comes more parking demand.

This leads us to problem two, and arguably the bigger issue – two of the city’s three big parking garages, the Green Street Garage and the Seneca Street Garage, are near the end of their usable lives.

Whether they get rebuilt with some gleaming mixed-use project or just as parking garages, the fact that they have to be rebuilt at nearly the same time (they were built at nearly the same time, and experienced the same winters, automotive wear-and-tear and salt) means hundreds of parking spaces will go offline, in phases that will stretch out for years.

In short, the problem’s coming, whether city leaders like it or not. So what can they do? Well, there are a few options. The city can probably convince some drivers to switch to the much newer Cayuga Street Garage on the south end of Downtown, but that only has so many spaces. So now they have to start thinking bigger; not just addressing commuter and resident demands, but trying to change up the way people commute so that there are fewer people driving into the city alone, if driving at all.

That’s a pretty tall order; people are often set in their ways.

Enter “GoIthaca”. New York State, through Empire State Development and the DEC, awarded the city about $460,000 last winter to help them come up and execute a “Transportation Demand Management Program”, or TDMP. The city contracted the work out to the Downtown Ithaca Alliance to make the TDMP happen, and in turn, the DIA met with TCAT, the Center for Community Transportation (a consortium comprised of groups like Ithaca CarShare and Bike-Walk Tompkins) and other local transportation providers to create the TDMP, a.k.a. GoIthaca.

According to DIA Executive Director Gary Ferguson, this is the second grant they’ve received to develop the TDMP. NYSERDA, the state’s energy research and development unit, funded a test pilot program a couple years ago. “That allowed us to test out a bunch of ideas,” said Ferguson. “See how things worked, how some did not work, and based on that, this (NYS) DEC Climate Smart Communities grant will allow us to put together an honest-to-goodness program,” said Ferguson.

“TDM is basically the human side of infrastructure,” said Lauren Gabuzzi, the Program Manager for GoIthaca. Like many of Ithaca’s transplants, Gabuzzi, a Chicago-area native, came for school and after graduating decided to stick around and launch her career here. “It’s trying to incentivize infrastructure that’s already in place to level the playing field because car transportation is already very heavily subsidized, and it’s offering incentives and rewards to encourage people to try any other mode of transportation besides driving alone.”

In most cities, the big push for TDMPs is congestion. Try getting in and out of New York City or Boston during rush hour, and you can see why the cities push the trains, bus, bikes and other ways to get around. In a place like Ithaca, though, congestion is not the biggest issue. Even if Route 13 is backed up, it’s still not nearly as bad as the big urban metros. There’s also a TDMP in Collegetown, where developing in its inner core can forego parking on the stipulation that they provide a TDMP that city planning staff review and sign off on. But the situation is unique in that 99% of residents are students who make the short walk to Cornell.

So what drives the push for TDMPs Downtown? Ferguson and Gabuzzi say the parking supply and parking demand concern is one part of it, the parking supply will be stressed over the next few years. That’s a big reason why they want to have GoIthaca ready to go before any shovels hit the ground at the Green Street Garage (which is about a year away at its potential soonest). The other major reason is perhaps more distinct to Ithaca’s progressive culture – the Green New Deal. One big way to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce single-occupancy vehicles, the vast majority of which are gasoline-powered.

What GoIthaca is at its core is a package of services, managed by an advisory committee of groups like TCAT, CCT, the DIA, the city and Cornell. “We reviewed the (NYSERDA) pilot and decided we needed a more robust incentive and reward package and how we decided to do that is to create this commuter benefit package. A lot of cities do that at a very large scale through major employers, like Amazon or Google, who can pay to make really robust programs. But in Ithaca, our employers are smaller, so we created a package that we can offer directly to employees,” said Gabuzzi.

“What that is like is essentially a burrito bar,” Gabuzzi said with a smile. (Note to readers, this is what happens when you do interviews during lunch hour.) “You start with the base, you’ve got your rice, which is the “Smart Commuter” package, and that gets you a $50 credit to CarShare, a $50 coupon to be used at a select list of Smart Commute businesses in the Downtown core for walking and biking, stores that sell outdoor gear so you could use that money to get a bike tune-up or walking shoes or a jacket. You’ll also get a 15-ride TCAT card so you can supplement your preferred transportation with bus rides, and you get Back-up Ride Home membership for a year. It’s a really awesome program run through CarShare where if your primary mode of transportation is compromised one day, say you carpool in and you kid is sick at school and you need to pick them up, and the bus has a flat tire or something, Back-Up Ride Home will drive you home for free four times a year. It’s a good safety net if you’re trying another mode of transportation, which in our pilot survey was a huge factor.” Not mentioned but on the list is a $20 credit for LimeBikes.

The price for this mix of options? $25 a month, or if someone wants to pay a year at a time, $145. Even though the CarShare and shopping voucher are one-time items, that annual rate is 76% less than the value of services at regular price, and 88% less than a city parking permit. There are five different packages offered, depending on whether someone wishes to have walking, biking, busing or carpooling, which as long as the Board of Public Works is comfortable with it, carpooling gets you a sizable discount in the garages. Another “Occasional Parker” discount is available for those who need to drive alone into Downtown up to four times a month (Gabuzzi called this the “guacamole in the burrito bar”).

It seems like a lot, and perhaps a bit complicated. Ferguson and Gabuzzi explained the downfall of many TDMPs, including the NYSERDA pilot, is that they’re too strict on how they can be used. GoIthaca’s plan is to offer more flexibility.

“People aren’t making yes or no, all-in or all-out decisions. Only a few of us can do that. Most of us are willing to try it, but sometimes we can do it one way, sometimes we can’t. You really need to have flexibility here – someone might use it once a week, some twice or three times a week, some three times a month. But it all adds up, every little bit helps,” said Ferguson.

The program will be marketed through both employers and through direct marketing. The interest of employers is key in making the program effective, and in turn it helps ease their parking concerns when they’re deciding whether or not to stay downtown as Tompkins Trust did, or move to an office park in Lansing. The prices are set low for the program in an effort to appeal to those with higher incomes and those making lower wages. “If I have to pay $100 a month to park, that eats up a whole lot of my income. Sometimes I may not even know my schedule, and I end up paying $10 a day. That adds up. We’re trying to be economical with the incentives in this program,” said Ferguson.

So, to play devil’s advocate for a moment. This sounds interesting, but it also sounds confusing. No one wants decision paralysis up at the burrito bar. That question was posed to Gabuzzi and Ferguson.

“We’re going to have a quiz on our website to help guide you through and ask you how you normally get to work – do you mainly do this, do you mainly do that; that will help guide someone to the perfect plan for them. In addition to that, my contact will be widely shared if they want to have an individual conversation with me,” said Gabuzzi.

In terms of numbers, the goal is 600 active users, mostly commuters, at the end of the three-year test period. It’s going to take time to build to that goal, but it’s not impossible. The DIA is working on other programs for Downtown residents, ideas like satellite parking lots for residents who are occasional drivers, for example, they might take the bus to work at Cornell and use their garaged car once or twice a week for groceries or travel.

If GoIthaca doesn’t work, then the grant wraps up and life goes on. If it does, though, since the costs are presently subsidized by a three-year grant, the city will need to explore funding avenues, whether an overlay like what funds the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, or subsidy from major employers like Cornell. At this moment, it’s uncertain where the long-term funding will come from if the program works. “We need something that is sustainable,” said Ferguson. “That’s an unanswered open question. We’re still trying to figure that out.”

It’s an interesting idea, but with the parking and sustainability focus, the DIA and the city think it’s worth a try. After all, you can’t develop a taste for burritos if you haven’t tasted a burrito. With any luck, it’ll take a bit out of Downtown Ithaca’s parking woes.

Brian Crandall

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