A product of three separate transit systems that joined forces in the early 1990s, Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit, Inc. (TCAT), Ithaca, NY, has made remarkable and measurable strides with ridership growth, safety practices, workforce training, community outreach and environmental sustainability.
TCAT’s service area covers a semi‑rural, albeit, cosmopolitan and culturally diverse population of 102,000 in Tompkins County. TCAT’s 34 urban, campus and rural bus routes provide service to both county and out-of-county riders to Cornell University, Ithaca College, Tompkins Cortland Community College, as well as to retail, entertainment, commercial, residential and professional centers. TCAT operates 22- ½ hours a day, seven days a week and 360 days a year, only shutting down service five days a year to allow all of TCAT’s employees to observe major holidays: New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
In 2019, TCAT’s annual ridership was a little more than 4.2 million, a 54 percent increase in the span of 15 years. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, TCAT’s ridership dropped in 2020 by 66 percent to about 1.4 million. The pandemic, which started showing up in Tompkins County in mid-March 2020, prompted an abrupt decline in rides by 90 percent. As of late February, 2021, ridership is hovering around 25 percent of what it was pre-pandemic. From the the pandemic’s onset in our area in March of 2020, TCAT has been implementing and refining its safety practices to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
TCAT contributes greatly to the community it serves by reducing traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions and the cost of building parking facilities. Access to such a robust transit system enables Tompkins County residents to save on fuel costs and enables independence and empowerment to those who have no other means of transportation.
At present, TCAT has a fleet of about 55 buses, mostly 40-foot diesel buses, which travel a combined distance of 1.7 million miles a year. In spring 2020, TCAT will take possession on seven electric buses manufactured by Proterra. The agency’s goal is to transform most or all of its fleet to electric buses by 2035.
TCAT’s Governance and History
TCAT is governed by a nine‑member Board of Directors comprised of three individuals recommended by each of its three main local funding partners: the City of Ithaca, Tompkins County and Cornell University. Nominees, in turn, are elected by the TCAT board and, in that capacity, serve TCAT solely and independently of their respective recommending bodies.
Though TCAT is an independent organization, the City, County and Cornell are at the very root of its dynamic history as TCAT was created from a consolidation of:
- Ithaca Transit, which was started by the City in 1962 as a municipal bus system;
- TOMTRAN, which was started by the County in 1981 as a rural transit system to maintain access to rural-based labor forces in Tompkins and, via a contract with Tioga Transport, Tioga County.
- CU Transit, which was started by Cornell in 1966 as a campus shuttle bus system.
City, county and Cornell leaders wisely recognized the inherent financial and overall operational inefficiencies of three different services serving one small county. In 1991, these leaders established what was named an “Operating Committee” to begin the long and complex process of consolidating all three operations, personnel, bargaining units and fares into a single system. This committee also oversaw the construction of a new facility to house all three.
Upon the facility’s completion in 1992, the three transit agencies moved into a brand new $5 million transit facility, 737 Willow Ave., Ithaca, along with Gadabout Transportation Services, Inc. In 1992, the three transit systems began offering paratransit services, as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, through a contract with Gadabout, now led by Executive Director Kristen Wells. (To this day, Gadabout continues to curb the relatively high cost of paratransit by using volunteer drivers, who must go through rigorous training and licensing procedures, to augment its staff of paid drivers.)
After the move, the city, county and Cornell transit systems operated separately under one roof while sharing administrative staff, as well as the cost of utilities and maintenance. In 1996, the consolidation process moved forward when the New York State Legislature adopted a law authorizing the creation of TCAT. That year, the Operating Committee hired the merging organization’s first‑ever general manager, Rod Ghearing, an important step that was followed by the adoption of the TCAT name and logo. Another highlight for 1996: TCAT became the first New York transit system to equip its fleet with bike racks.
Yet another important milestone was reached in April 1998 when the city, county and Cornell adopted a consolidation agreement to become a joint venture. Following a study of all routes and fares, TCAT implemented a unified route system and fare structure that became effective in August 1999. Finally, TCAT was incorporated and began operations Jan. 1, 2005, as a private, not‑for‑profit corporation and a single employer providing public transportation services to Tompkins County, and for a time, to surrounding areas. That year, TCAT hired its second general manager, Joe Turcotte, who was credited for the agency being named the best transportation system of its size in 2011 by the American Public Transportation Association. Sadly, following a lengthy illness, the 51-year-old Turcotte passed away in May 2016, after which time Assistant General Manager Alice Eccleston assumed the role of acting general manager while a TCAT board committee launched a nationwide search to replace Turcotte. The committee selected operations manager Scot Vanderpool, who had several years of transportation experience at CENTRO and Syracuse University, to become TCAT’s third general manager, effective August 2017.
TCAT Funding Structure
TCAT’s largest single source of revenue is drawn from the NY State Operating Assistance (STOA) fund, under a formula based on ridership and miles traveled. These funds account for about 38 percent of TCAT’s $16 million annual operating budget.
The city, county and Cornell each provide equal funding to TCAT or 18 percent of TCAT’s total operating budget or a total of more than $2.7 million in 2019. Other sources of operating income include cash fares, including Cornell University’s annual fare payment program, for a total of about 30 percent, and federal operating funds.
TCAT’s management and the TCAT Board of Directors continue to work with community stakeholders, as well as local, state and federal funders to secure predictable and adequate funding for capital projects, which include the acquisition of buses, and amenities and facility improvements.
Despite funding limitations, the past decade has been particularly ambitious with recent projects to include:
- The 2018 completion of a Strategic Plan 2013-2030 that provides a roadmap for TCAT’s future.
- An Informational Technology/Intelligent Transportation Systems project rolled out in 2018 that allows TCAT to provide passengers with real-time information for passengers via the Bus Tracker and Google Trip Planner on its website. Mobile Apps, including those created by third-party developers have vastly improved TCAT’s ability to inform its customers.
- “What’s a Bus Stop?” Project, which clearly established TCAT’s bus stops in urban and suburban areas with improved signage. This project was assisted by Cornell University Sustainability and Design students and was completed in 2018.
- Reverting to a zone-less, more equitable fare structure. Since Aug., 2019, all riders, regardless of where they board pay a $1.50 adult single ride fare or 75 cents for persons with disabilities, seniors 60 and older and youth 17 and under.
- Exploration of options to relocate or build a new facility, or to expand the current 737 Willow Ave. facility, which TCAT has long outgrown.
- Continued replacement of older bus shelters with more efficient and modernized structures throughout the system.
- Implementation of a demand- and app-based First-Mile/Last Mile initiative called Tconnect to better connect rural customers in rural low-density areas to TCAT’s bus stop for seamless travel.
- The launch of a Transit Development Plan, the first since 2010, for a comprehensive study of TCAT’s service, which is followed by recommendations and implementation of improvements.
About TCAT’s work force
TCAT’s employees are at the heart of the agency’s successes so fostering labor‑management harmony is a top priority.
In 2004, the United Auto Workers was recognized by TCAT as the collective bargaining unit to represent bus operators and TCAT’s maintenance team. The first three-year contract with the UAW went into effect October 2005. The most recent three‑year‑contract was signed in June 2018.
TCAT is a responsible employer with a workforce of 140 that includes 83 full-time and six part-time bus operators, 10 full-time and one part-time bus mechanics, seven full-time and two-part time maintenance and custodial crew; and 31 full-time administrative and management staff. TCAT’s Human Resources Department pro‑actively seeks to build and retain a diverse workforce. TCAT pays competitive wages and provides a generous benefits package to its union and non‑union employees. In addition, TCAT places a heavy emphasis on safety and workforce training covering all aspects of its operations.
In addition to building and retaining a talented staff, TCAT strongly believes that the philosophy of “putting riders first” is the underpinning to its success. TCAT aims to respond swiftly, fairly and courteously to all feedback and passenger inquiries, and to transparent about its operations and business practices.
To bolster its customer service efforts, TCAT in 2007 established what is now called the Riders’ Advisory and Accessibility Committee, a group of interested riders, who once a month bring to the table suggestions, observations and constructive criticism to the attention of TCAT management. This committee and the community as a whole support TCAT’s mission “to contribute to the overall social, environmental, and economic health in our service area by delivering safe, reliable and affordable transportation and, at the same time, being a responsive, responsible employer.”
(updated February 2021)