ITHACA, N.Y.—Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit’s (TCAT) Board of Directors approved a revised version of the Transportation Agreement at their Sept. 22 meeting. The contract binds Cornell, the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County as the bus service’s financial underwriters.
And just in time, too.
The agreement was set to expire on Oct. 9. The urgency of the matter pushed the Tompkins County Legislature and Ithaca’s Common Council to prioritize passing the agreement to avoid sending TCAT over a funding cliff, despite some officials having their reservations around some changed terms in the contract.
Delaying the approval of the Transportation Agreement would have left TCAT partially unfunded. In 2021, the three underwriters contributed around $2.8 million to TCAT, or 19% of TCAT’s $15 million operating budget that year.
A controversial amendment pushed for Cornell University has also been changed in what seems like it will be the last iteration of the Transportation Agreement.
Since 2005, the Transportation Agreement had an article in it that would compel the three underwriters to fill in equal thirds any budgetary deficit at TCAT. Such an operating deficit has never accrued at TCAT, but the bus service is now looking down the road at ballooning costs and decreasing revenues.
TCAT is projecting to see a 38.7% increase in its operating expenditures from 2021 to 2024, going from around $15 million to just under $20.8 million. Projections are liable to change but, with the way things look now, an essential service has a rough road ahead.
Cornell had originally pushed for changing that article that would require the underwriters to fill a budgetary deficit, amending it to allow underwriters if they would decide if they would or not.
The version of the Transportation Agreement that was passed by TCAT’s Board of Directors includes a letter clarifying that underwriters would fill any budgetary shortfall at TCAT unless there was a major adjustment in the transit agency’s business model or expenses.
The two strongest examples of a situation that would trigger this exception would be if TCAT were to consider going fare-free, as the FreeCAT campaign has been pushing for, or if TCAT were to have a new transit center built and move from its current one on Willow Avenue. This would be a major capital expense.
The change to the TCAT Transportation Agreement, by and large, came just under the wire, pushed primarily by Tompkins County Legislator Vice Chair Debroah Dawson with assistance from Legislator Rich John working with Cornell. The Tompkins County Legislature passed the updated version of the agreement at its Sept. 20 meeting.
Common Council will now need to reapprove the agreement. At their Sept. 7, with three votes dissenting, the council passed the previous version of the Transportation Agreement that would allow the underwriters to decide if it would fill a budgetary gap or not. The decision came despite a letter from the county legislature urging it not to, and to allow for further negotiations to play out before accepting an agreement.
The City of Ithaca’s Common Council will review and vote on the revise d agreement at its Oct. 5 meeting.