ITHACA, N.Y.—A pilot program to promote and incentivize alternative transportation choices in Ithaca will not only continue but expand its offerings with the help of hundreds of thousands in funding from a Climate Smart Communities grant through New York State.

The GO ITHACA program provides information and incentives for people interested in trying various alternative transportation methods. Membership in the program presents a number of benefits, including a bikeshare service, 40 free TCAT rides and discounts on monthly passes, discounts on parking passes and access to carpooling and backup ride services, and $50 credits for Ithaca Carshare and $50 coupons for walking and biking equipment. As of this past summer, GO ITHACA had over 500 members.

The purpose of GO ITHACA is to make living in Ithaca easier for those who don’t have or don’t want to use their own car every day. Cars are great, but they are also expensive to maintain (gas, maintenance, insurance), and they have air quality and greenhouse gas impacts. Plus, let’s be frank, it’s a pain in the butt to navigate the denser neighborhoods of Ithaca, constantly searching out a parking space and hoping someone doesn’t take off your sideview mirror or back into your car while you pop into the store for five minutes.

From the city’s perspective, it’s more financially efficient and ecological to encourage fewer cars on its roads and to promote biking, carshares and bus rides as alternative ways to get around. GO ITHACA is “transportation demand management;” when done right, the city can feel more comfortable with denser urban development, Ithaca doesn’t need to spend as much on building and maintaining public parking spaces, and it reduces citywide vehicle emissions, a key component of the Ithaca Green New Deal.

Anyway, GO ITHACA’s full-scale $460,000 pilot run has just about run its course as the program completes three years of existence. In Fall 2019, before the word “COVID” was on anyone’s lips and before gas prices did a historically-large roller coaster ride, the goal was to have 600 members by the end of the trial period in February 2023. It appears the program is pretty close to that objective, given that 500+ figure from this past summer. By that measure, it would appear that GO ITHACA has been fairly successful in reaching its goals, albeit with occasional tweaks in offerings and benefits.

Apparently, New York State agrees. Announced this week was an even bigger grant than the initial award to create GO ITHACA. The $851,450 DEC Climate Smart Communities grant will not only keep GO ITHACA moving, the program will expand beyond downtown to service East Ithaca, South Hill, Northwest Ithaca, West Hill, The Flats, Lansing, Cayuga Heights, and Northeast Ithaca, according to the state press release.

For city officials and GO ITHACA staff, this is welcome news. There had been the concern way back when this was launched that once the original grant ran out, the city would have to explore other funding avenues, like a tax district overlay or hitting up Cornell and Ithaca College for subsidies. This grant takes a lot of that pressure off, at least in the short-term. It’s also a big vote of confidence in the quality and achievements of the transportation demand management program.

A rider steps onto a TCAT bus. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

When reached for comment, GO ITHACA and Downtown Ithaca Alliance staff were initially caught off guard, as the Voice unknowingly had the pleasure of telling them of the grant award.

“This is incredibly exciting, the timing is just great. The DEC award will allow the Go Ithaca transportation demand management program to grow and expand, to serve more people throughout the community,” said Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance. “We are a community sincerely committed to reducing our energy footprint and greenhouse gas emissions. We must make certain that transportation is as much a part of our strategy as the built environment. Go Ithaca has been created to help achieve this aim and this DEC grant represents a major step toward our community energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals.”

Likewise, his colleague Jane Bowman Brady, the Go Ithaca Director, was just as excited about the news. “GO ITHACA is grateful to have been awarded the 2023 Climate Smart Communities grant, and we are excited for everything we will be able to do with these funds. […] We will be able to support more people to try alternative modes of transportation and get around in a sustainable way. We will be able to expand our Easy Access program which provides benefits for low income individuals. As we expand to areas less served by public modes of transportation, we will look to expand and improve upon our current offerings, including more benefits for carpoolers.” 

Given that work continues on the Green Street Garage, and that re-construction on the Seneca Garage is going to be necessary within the next couple of years, the continuation of GO ITHACA will help to relieve some of the logistical pressures as construction crews carry on Downtown. The expansion into some of the inner suburban neighborhoods also presents opportunities to try and coax a few more drivers to leave their cars at home.

Brian Crandall

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