ITHACA, N.Y. —The strained relationship between a local bus service and the City of Ithaca appears to be taking an amicable turn.
OurBus, a company that connects Ithacans with intercity bus travel throughout the northeast, received conditional approval to pick up and drop off riders on Seneca Street, in front of Starbucks, at the Common Council’s regular meeting last week.
The move comes on the heels of a difficult year between city officials and OurBus.
After the operators of the former intercity bus terminal in the city’s West End decided to retire and the building’s owner Tompkins Trust, decided they would not be using the location for a bus terminal any longer, the city made the move to offer permits to bus companies to operate off of Green Street. The permit fees, plus a $15 pick-up/drop-off fee, would be used to make updates to the Green Street location to make it safer and more inviting for travelers, like changing curb cuts and road painting to better define the bus lanes.
OurBus had operated from the location on Green Street until the closure of the terminal on the West End in the fall of 2018, took issue with the city’s plans, with company co-founder Axel Hellman going as far as threatening litigation during public comment.
Council went into executive session and, in the name of compromise, the fee was lowered to $5 and the ordinance was passed.
OurBus ended up suing the city anyway. That lawsuit was dismissed in July.
The fee was subsequently raised back to $15 per stop.
“When this bus company came to town they, really had this Silicon Valley attitude — move fast, break stuff, apologize later,” said Mayor Svante Myrick. “When we wouldn’t let them do that, that’s when they sued us. Now that we’ve won that lawsuit…OurBus is seeing that that was the wrong way to do business in the city of Ithaca.”
OurBus, as part of an agreement that will allow them to continue to pick-up and drop-off on city streets, will pay the city’s legal fees for that lawsuit, reportedly in the region of $80,000, and the cost to relocate a fire hydrant. The pilot program permits OurBus to operate off this corner through March. Common Council has the authority to terminate the agreement with one month’s notice.
For OurBus’ part, they say they weren’t the problem on Green Street — things operated fine there until the legacy carriers were permitted to operate off the same spot after the terminal in the West End closed. That, they say, is when congestion began.
“At OurBus, we’re offering a more flexible model than traditional bus companies and while this is great for riders, it means we can’t provide the kinds of fixed schedules that the City is used to getting from the bigger players,” said OurBus Co-founder and CEO,” Narinder Singh. “Although we run fewer buses, officials were concerned about traffic backups. Any time you’re trying to do something new, there’s an education process. And yes, it got contentious at times. But we’re glad that the City of Ithaca sees value in our service and has worked out this agreement with us.”
As to why the city continues to deal with a company that has been so problematic, there is some agreement that the service OurBus provides is the only of its type in Ithaca.
“Why not kick them out of town? The answer is, they provide a really valuable service,” said Myrick. “They basically run an on-demand bus service. It used to be you would take the Greyhound and they were on a fixed schedule. Ourbus is offering routes to…you name it, something we never really had before. We want people coming from those places to be able to come car-free.”
According to the city, there has been a noticeable bump in foot traffic at businesses downtown and there is interest in keeping the intercity buses coming and going from some point in the city’s core.
In the long-term, Mayor Myrick has expressed his interest in including an intercity bus terminal in the eventual re-design of the Seneca Street Parking Garage that, similarly to the Green Street Garage, is in need of updates.
The next move is the relocation of the hydrant in front of Starbucks and the creation of a wayfinding signage package to alert drivers picking-up or dropping-off a passenger in an appropriate place to do so. The carriers that are permitted to operate on Green Street will continue to do so.
“We’re happy to work with the City and do what’s best for everyone, even making infrastructure improvements like the relocation of hydrants,” added Singh. “We’ve always believed that OurBus offers a unique service to Ithaca and that residents deserve the best transportation options.”