ITHACA, N.Y.—Cornell University and the Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) have agreed to extend for one year the contract binding the transportation company to continue to provide bus service on the university’s campus. However, despite rising inflation, the contract does not increase the amount that Cornell will pay TCAT for the services.
The specific contract is the Cornell University Bus Pass Program, which is a separate agreement between TCAT and Cornell aside from the contract that Cornell, the City of Ithaca, and Tompkins County — the supporting entities that underwrite the bus transit company.
Under the bus pass program, Cornell covers the ridership fees of its students, faculty, and staff in lump sums; for the services from July 2021, to June 2022, Cornell paid TCAT a total of just over $3.3 million in monthly payments. On June 15, the TCAT Board of Directors voted to approve another one year MOU between TCAT and Cornell to essentially renew the same agreement Cornell and TCAT had set in place the previous year, with the only dissenting vote being Tompkins County Legislator Dan Klein, who also serves as a board member.
Klein previously aired his thoughts on tactics Cornell used to receive a $315,000 discount on a previous contract between TCAT and Cornell on the university bus pass program, saying that the university had acted in “bad faith” and as a “bully” in negotiations, particularly for being the underwriter with the most financial resources between it and the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County.
At the June 15 meeting, Klein moved an amendment to increase the total payment Cornell would make to TCAT for the bus pass program from $3.3 million to $3.8 million to account for inflation according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation he made. He cited the Congressional Budget Office’s May estimates for the consumer price index to increase by 6.1% by the end of 2022, and by 3.1% by the end of 2023, and called a 0% increase in the agreement between TCAT and Cornell “inadequate” considering the pace of inflation.
“The cost of virtually every aspect of TCATs operation has gone up: buses, gas, parts, wages, and more. If Cornell is expecting the same level of service, then they should at least be willing to pay an amount equal to the rate of inflation to pay for that service,” Klein said.
The memorandum of understanding (MOU) between TCAT and Cornell for the bus program is, historically, a three-year agreement. The pandemic’s uncertainty disrupted this cadence, and the second straight single-year MOU is a result of the pandemic’s ramifications on TCAT— namely, the continued staffing challenges TCAT has been experiencing, which have begun and may continue to impact the company’s services.
In the meeting, TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool raised staffing issues to Klein as one of the stronger reasons why TCAT did not negotiate for an increase — TCAT currently has 69 full-time drivers, and 6 part-time drivers, but needs between 80 and 85. Coupled with staffing shortages, TCAT is also soon to engage with intensive negotiations with United Auto Workers over the contract its employees are represented under, as well as negotiations with Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, and Cornell University over the Transportation Services Agreement, which binds the three entities as underwriters for the bus organization.
If TCAT’s staffing issues aren’t solved, then service will potentially have to be cut for routes serving Cornell and other areas, said Vanderpool. He stressed in the meeting that Klein was made aware of the pressures that TCAT is experiencing during an executive session. He added that he was “upset” that Klein had moved to amend the MOU with this knowledge which, had it passed, would require Vanderpool and the negotiation committee to go back to the bargaining table with Cornell to get the amended MOU resigned.
“We do not want to deal with going back to Cornell with something else added to this contract when it’s already been signed by Cornell. I just don’t understand Dan’s comments at all,” said Vanderpool.
Vanderpool shared with The Ithaca Voice that he had originally hoped to get a 3% increase on the bus pass program payments from Cornell, but after discussions on the unknowns, particularly the possible service reductions, he felt no increase was appropriate for this year.
Klein’s amendment to change the MOU did fail in a vote, but the discussion did elicit some sympathetic and forward-looking comments from other TCAT board members.
Jennifer Dotson, a board member and CEO of the Center for Community Transportation, did not support Klein’s move but said that regarding the Cornell University Bus Pass Program, “the negotiations are not where I would like them to be.”
“I think there’s a lot of room for TCAT to see more support, and that would be beneficial to all parties, but […] I’ll vote against it and for the resolution, because I think it is also beneficial to all parties to move forward in this place, partly because of what Scot is saying,” said Dotson, But she added, “It’s time to do this. It’s time to work toward what Dan is suggesting.”
Cornell-appointed TCAT Board member Denise Thompson, however, scolded Klein for his attempted amendment, considering them disruptive rather than constructive.
“So adding something to the resolution, I don’t know why we would do it other than are we trying to be argumentative and start a problem?” said Thompson, later saying, “We don’t need to be petty. TCAT is above this.”
The general sentiment of the TCAT board at the end of the June 15 meeting, though, seemed to indicate that they would like to increase the contributions from Cornell to TCAT for the university bus pass program in the future, once staffing and other issues are resolved.