Former top city of Ithaca official and long-time local transit proponent Bill Gray took over the helm as chairperson of the nine-member TCAT Inc. Board of Directors at its first regular board meeting of the year on Thurs., Jan. 28.
TCAT (Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit Inc.) is a not-for-profit corporation that provides public transportation for Tompkins County, New York.
The TCAT Board of Directors in December elected Gray, who has served on the board since August, 2011, and most recently served as chairperson of the board’s budget committee. He was recommended by the city to continue serving on the board and was in rotation to serve as 2016 chairperson.
Gray, who retired from his position as the city’s superintendent of public works in 2013, was part of a pre‑TCAT operating committee in the early 1990s. The committee worked toward merging three transit systems operated separately by the city, Tompkins County and Cornell University, which led to all three signing a consolidation agreement in 1997. TCAT began operating as a private, not-for-profit corporation in January, 2005. As the city, county and Cornell are TCAT’s local underwriters, each entity is entitled to recommend three people to serve on the board. Those nominated, in turn, are considered for election by the TCAT board and, if elected, and in their capacity as TCAT board members, they serve TCAT independently of their respective recommending bodies.
Gray will fill the one‑year term as chairperson replacing 2015 TCAT Chairperson Frank Proto, who will remain on the board as immediate past chairperson. Proto, a former long-time Tompkins County legislator and recommended to the TCAT board by the county, has served on the transit agency’s board and its predecessor operating committee for more than two decades. Proto last served as TCAT board chairperson in 2010.
Gray, as head of the TCAT board’s budget committee in spring of 2015, worked with Proto and other board members to successfully hammer out a memorandum of understanding with Cornell University officials, which netted increases in fare payments to TCAT for the university’s volume discount plan. Both sides are continuing to negotiate a long-term agreement “that both Cornell and TCAT can use for planning and budgeting efforts,” Gray said. In the agreement, Cornell committed an additional $500,000 for fare payments over a three-year period, which will bring Cornell’s total annual fare payment to more than $3.1 million by 2018.
Gray noted that in late 2015 — for the first time in a decade ─ Congress finally passed a multi-year (five-year) federal highway transportation bill that was signed into law by President Obama, which “will prove to be a challenging, and eventually a beneficial opportunity for TCAT.” Federal funding accounts for about 11 percent of TCAT’s annual $13.9 million operating budget and about 75 percent of TCAT’s annual capital budget, which averages about $2 million. Nonetheless, TCAT continues to advocate for more reliable and adequate funding, especially at the federal and state levels. TCAT particularly needs funding to meet its capital needs to include bus replacements, information technology upgrades, and facility and amenities improvements.
Gray said that he will work with TCAT staff to help fill 16 staff vacancies that have left TCAT short-handed. “I know that both the board and senior staff are worried about the open staff positions at TCAT and the resulting workload taken on by all existing staff to include bus operators, mechanics, and administrative staff,” Gray said. “Staffing will be an important work item. Workload and pay scale will continue to be primary concerns for the board in 2016.” (At present, TCAT has 107 full‑time and four part-time employees and has vacancies for 11 bus operators and five maintenance staff.)
To address critical shortages of bus operators and mechanics, the board agreed in late 2015 to bring in contract workers on a temporary basis for up to six months to fill bus operator and maintenance vacancies exacerbated by retirements and a tight labor market.
“Getting some relief for our drivers and mechanics was the result of some creative thinking by our administrative folks,” added Proto. “Though neither an ideal nor permanent solution, and while our recruitment efforts continue in earnest, contracting for temporary help has provided a little breathing room for all.”
Proto praised fellow board members and TCAT employees for their diligence in meeting the many challenges the agency faced in 2015. TCAT and other New York State agencies were particularly worried when a last‑minute amendment added to the transportation bill in the U.S. House in early December would have slashed millions of dollars in transit funding for agencies, such as TCAT, in high-density states, including New York State. Fortunately, after hearing loud opposition from transit proponents, including the New York Public Transit Association (NYPTA), Congress restored the funding in the final transportation bill. Another plus, said Proto, is that TCAT was able to secure a one-time increase of $50,000 from each of its local funders in 2016. The local contribution from the three underwriters for operational funding remained flat at $829,432 since 2009.
“Budget issues took a front-row seat all the way from dealing with our Washington representatives to meeting with our three local funders regarding TCAT's operating and capital needs,’ Proto said. “Restoration of much needed federal monies, and the incremental local increases we need were the results of great teamwork provided by both the TCAT staff and the board of directors. Successfully completing the first phase of the memorandum of understanding with Cornell University and their team was a highlight of the year! The second piece is due to be negotiated shortly,” Proto said.
Proto also praised the hard work and dedication of those who have left the board in 2015, to include: former Tompkins County Legislator Kathy Luz Herrera, (recommended by the county); Kellie Page, Cornell University’s associate vice president/ student and academic services, finance and administration (recommended by Cornell); and former City of Ithaca Chief of Staff Kevin Sutherland, (recommended by the city). “Certainly as chairman in 2015, I must commend our board for their engagement last year,” Proto said. “I don't remember any other time when these nine directors pitched in as a group to help carry the load,” he said, adding that “2016 will be another year filled with issues. I will certainly miss the counsel of those who have left but look forward to working with those joining us for the first time."
New board members include:
John “Gutie” Gutenberger, senior advisor of community relations at Cornell University (recommended by Cornell and elected to the board in December). “TCAT has long been recognized as an outstanding public transit service provider and I am honored to be asked to be a part of it,” said Gutenberger, a former mayor of Ithaca.
Dan Klein, Tompkins County legislator (recommended by the county and elected to the board in December). “I am excited to be joining the TCAT Board of Directors. I have a lot to learn. I look forward to listening to and working with TCAT's employees and board members, and to bus users throughout the county to find solutions to the many challenges that TCAT faces,” Klein said.
Ducson Nguyen, City of Ithaca Common Council alderperson (recommended by the city and elected to the TCAT board on Jan. 28). “Many of the issues that are important to me —building more housing, sustainability, income inequality—rely on reliable public transit with good coverage and convenient schedules. We already have a remarkable bus system, but maintaining and improving it is a vital challenge that I am eager to tackle,” Nguyen said.
Other board members who will continue to serve include Bridgette Brady, Cornell’s director of transportation services (recommended by Cornell); Jennifer Dotson, Ithaca Carshare executive director and former Ithaca Common Council alderperson (recommended by the city); David Howe, assistant dean of finance and administration at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine (recommended by Cornell); and Peter Stein, Tompkins County legislator (recommended by the county). Stein this year will serve as the TCAT board’s secretary-treasurer.
“We are extremely fortunate to have such a talented, experienced and hard-working board to help guide us through the many challenges that TCAT and public transportation agencies, in general, are grappling with every day,” said TCAT Acting General Manager Alice Eccleston. “It’s important to note that our board members are not compensated financially for the many, many hours they give up to deal with very complex issues inherent to public transit. That kind of dedication is priceless.”