It started when the Cornell University administration ordered the bulldozing of the “Redbud Woods.” It resulted, almost a decade later, in the Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit’s (TCAT’s) $740,000 deficit. It reached its conclusion, perhaps, when President David Skorton stated on Oct. 13 this year that Cornell would pay an additional $1.125 million to the TCAT over the next three years.
Despite President Skorton increasing Cornell’s contribution to the TCAT, some Cornell and local community members remain apprehensive, if not standoffish and vitriolic.
On campus, numerous students have organized a group called Save the Pass Coalition. According to its Facebook page, the group seeks “a binding commitment to $1 per ride and… a fair contract for workers, a contract that does not force the burden of the deficit onto the workers.” Their actions have included protests, teach-ins, and marches around campus.
The one dollar per ride figure forms the crux of the debate: over the years, as Cornell ridership has increased while its payments to TCAT have not, the subsidy-per-ride figure has dropped from $1 in 2006 to $0.84 in 2013. The original amount was calculated as the expected cost of a non-Cornellian with a monthly pass to ride the TCAT.
Fiscal conservatives should recognize the delicate balance between adequately funding TCAT—through a model that reflects both the value of a TCAT ride and the TCAT’s marginal costs, including fair compensation for workers—and being weary of throwing away students’ tuition to populist causes.
There is no doubt TCAT is vital to the university’s functioning, but there is equally no doubt in its structural problems. TCAT drivers endure long working hours, and growing monetary deficits sans increased subsidization or internal reforms means drivers will likely lose their jobs. What, then, is the solution here?
Free Passes: a Historical Primer
In 2005, the Cornell University administration commenced the clearing of a wooded area containing many redbud trees to create a parking lot for the new West Campus dormitories. Protestors cried foul, pointing out that Robert H. Treman, a Cornell alum and former owner of the land, requested that the land remain undeveloped when he bequeathed it to the university. According to a June 7, 2005 New York Times article, however, “he made no legal provisions to ensure that.” Although a 2004 ruling by the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission declared the area to be a historic site, rulings by the Tompkins County Supreme Court and the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court both struck down the decision.
Lacking a legal argument, faculty, students, and community members instead questioned the morality of destroying a natural area to create a parking lot. Protestors resorted to drastic demonstrations, chaining themselves to trees and even constructing platforms and taking up residence in the trees’ branches.
When Cornell administrators refused to abandon the development plans or observe a six-month moratorium, the protestors agreed to end the occupation and signed a document with then-president Henry Rawlings III—one which was not legally binding by any means.
“The agreement states that all new students, including freshmen, transfer students, and professional and graduate students, will receive a free transit pass if they do not request or receive a parking permit,” according to a July 17, 2005 Cornell Daily Sun article.
Yet, today, President Skorton and president-elect Elizabeth Garret face the challenges of halting the rise of undergraduate tuition, settling the TCAT’s deficit, and, according to some community members, honoring Rawlings’ promise of free freshman bus passes.
Free Bus Passes: Powerful Incentive or Economic Irrelevancy?
The fundamental problem, as the Save the Pass Coalition argues, is that Cornell does not subsidize the TCAT enough. The Cornell community reportedly comprised 71% of the TCAT’s 2014 ridership, but the university’s payments only constitute 26% of the TCAT’s revenue. To them, this is economic injustice, and is the major cause of the TCAT’s hundred thousand dollar deficits.
But it is an equal injustice to students and their tuition-paying parents to blindly siphon tuition dollars to the TCAT simply because they are asking for more. Before signing blank checks, the administration must ensure that the university spends its funds responsibly and logically.
The logic of providing free bus passes to new students is faulty on a few points. First, riding the bus is not a necessity, it is a luxury. For the average student, a cross-campus trek on foot is feasible even in the dead of winter.
Second, Cornell only provides free bus passes to new students. Why would free bus passes for new students alter returning students’ decisions to bring cars to campus or not? Conceivably, returning students who desire to park their car on campus will continue to do so regardless of whether Cornell continues to provide free bus passes to new students. The maintenance of free bus passes for new students seems to relate only tangentially to the amount of vehicular traffic on campus.
Finally, Ithaca College does not provide free TCAT passes to its students, although students pay a reduced fare of $1 per ride or potentially lower for semester-length pass. Some Cornell community members allege that eliminating free bus passes would create more difficulty for new students who want to go to the Ithaca Mall or the Commons. Ithaca College students, however, still frequently use the TCAT system even without free bus passes. Three dollars for a round trip to and from the Commons or the mall does not seem like an unfair or unmanageable sum.
The “Redbud Woods” incident occurred nearly a decade and two university presidents ago. The intended implementation of the agreement constructed by the Cornell administration and protestors is vague and, as such, should not alone serve as justification for subsidizing bus passes.
Funding the TCAT in a manner that fairly compensates TCAT
employees and reflects the TCAT’s costs is a responsible use of university money. Continuing to pay for free bus passes for all new students due to questionable incentives and decade-old events: not so much.
As a freshman, I use my free bus pass. to ride the TCAT for free multiple times a week. Yet, if tomorrow the university decided to stop paying for my bus rides, I would not protest for a moment. Paying for a bus ride translates into me, a private citizen, exchanging currency for a service, plain and simple.
Shay Collins is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.