ITHACA, N.Y. —Throughout the last half of the year, Ithaca’s public square has seen the idea of a fare-free public transit system gain renewed currency. 

Proponents have argued that making it free for anyone to ride one of the buses that Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) runs throughout the county would be a benefit on numerous fronts: from lowering greenhouse gas emissions, to improving equity among the financially less fortunate, to helping those who work downtown but have to live elsewhere due to Ithaca’s housing costs. 

There’s little to no argument that a fare free TCAT would generate those benefits and more, but where the rubber meets the road are on a number of financial and staffing challenges that the transit company is facing. A recently released report from TCAT’s Planning Committee has deemed that it is not the time to embark on the project of going fare-free.

The report, prepared by Tompkins County Legislator and outgoing TCAT Board member Dan Klein, concluded that going fare-free “is not feasible and is not recommended at this time.”

As TCAT emerges from the pandemic, and contends with decreased ridership, parts shortages, and a withered staff of drivers, the report recommends it’s best to return to the prospect of a fare-free TCAT when the conditions are right to take on the challenges such an endeavor entail.

The work on the report was give the green light in July by the TCAT Board of Directors. It was framed as a project to assess the viability of the idea of going fare-free, but prior to Klein’s work beginning, TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool established some criteria that would need to be met before the model could even be considered. 

Vanderpool’s requirements were that TCAT would need to have a staff of 90 to 95 bus drivers; bus maintenance services would need to reach 100% for a quarter of the year; 2 additional mechanic positions would need to be added; and parts ordering would need to become predictable.

Currently, TCAT has a staff of about 56 full time and 4 part time drivers. The transit company is also short several mechanics which, in combination with challenges getting the right parts, has created a backlog of repairs on TCAT buses leading to service cuts and schedule adjustments to be made on a rolling basis.

In response to the report the FreeCAT campaign, which has come to represent the most vocal supporters of a fare-free TCAT, have taken to pin Cornell University as the main obstacle.

The campaign is supported by political and activist groups like Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America, Cornell Progressives, and Ithaca Sunrise. Responding to a request for a statement from The Ithaca Voice, FreeCAT campaign members Jane Glaubman and Sabrina Leddy said that while the appreciated the content of the report they felt that the “barriers to action lie squarely with Cornell.”

“The freeCAT campaign, which seeks free and expanded mass transit for Tompkins County, appreciates the constraints on the TCAT Board enumerated in this report. We want to help the public to understand, however, that the barriers to action lie squarely with Cornell and with other large businesses that extract profit from our community without paying their fair share, FreeCAT’s statement reads. “Only a comprehensive movement to change Cornell’s financial relationship with the City and County can change this. If we face up to that reality it becomes unconscionable to take no action on the crisis at TCAT. Cornell must pay more.”

There are numerous challenges that the report touches on, which would require buy-in from the university as well as the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County as the financial supporters of TCAT.

A fare-free model would beget logistical challenges, namely where TCAT would park all the extra buses it would need in order to meet the expected surge in service free rides would bring on. 

The report arrived at a working assumption that going fare-free would increase TCAT’s ridership between 20% and 30% over pre-pandemic levels. In addition to more drivers, more buses would be needed to meet this rise in demand. TCAT currently has 52 buses, and is projected to need 67 if it went fare-free.

TCAT’s current facilities are “crowded” wrote Klein, making it a “limiting factor in going fare-free.” Studies TCAT initiated have demonstrated that expanding this facility is a no go. A new one would have to be built, and a 2018 estimate marked that cost at $50 million. 

While this hurdle needs to be overcome in order for TCAT to consider going fare-free, financing the transition is another matter. TCAT is projected to see its costs rise and revenue sources plateau or even decline. 

For 2022, TCAT’s most recent projected expenditures are around $16.3 million. Setting aside the issue of increasing fuel, labor, and equipment costs on the horizon, going fare-free would create a need for an additional $1.5 million in TCAT’s budget. 

Piecing together this funding would be a “large undertaking,” wrote Klein, but he listed some ideas to meet this added cost, like requesting an increase in payments from TCAT’s underwriters, which include the City of Ithaca, Tompkins County, and Cornell University. 

These three entities are contractually bound together as financial supporters of TCAT. Currently the underwriters are each contracted to make an annual contribution of $947,131, for a total of $2,841,393, or about 17% of TCAT’s projected expenditures for 2022.

The underwriters and TCAT management are currently in negotiations around increasing the payments underwriters make. 

Klein also suggested that funding could be sourced through bulk-fare agreements with other municipalities throughout the county, or large employers like Ithaca College or Cayuga Medical Center.

While finding a way to plug this gap is necessary to the potential of a fare-free future at TCAT, its viability would hinge Cornell University maintaining its bulk payments to the transit company. Cornell pays about $3.3 million annually to TCAT to cover the cost of bus rides for first year students, faculty, staff, and other groups associated with the university.  The payments are outlined in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) separate from the contract that binds Cornell, the City of Ithaca, and Tompkins County as TCAT’s underwriters. 

If Cornell were to decline to make these payments under a fair free model, the idea would be out the window. Klein wrote in the report that Cornell had not responded to repeated requests to explain where they would stand on making bulk payments to TCAT if the transit agency went fare-free.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn