Tompkins County Council of Governments
November 11, 2020
by Councilperson Robert Lynch, Enfield TCCOG Representative
The Tompkins County Council of Governments (TCCOG) met October 22nd. Matt Yarrow, Assistant General Manager for System Development and Planning for Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit (TCAT) provided the principal presentation regarding the TCAT Transit Development Plan (TDP), now underway. Once a decade, TCAT assesses its service, engages a consultant to ascertain how service can be improved and then determines how to accomplish those improvements.
A public engagement initiative now underway (the “Visioning Stage”) will be followed by another one next year (the “Feedback Stage”), with finalization of improvement recommendations planned for next summer. Yarrow said the consultants are open to receive even what he described as “crazy ideas” as to what the service should be or what TCAT should work on.
The Transit Development Plan calls for empaneling various focus groups, including three Rural Rider Groups, apportioned throughout the county by route. Participants will be drawn from those who primarily use those rural routes.
Lansing’s representative on TCCOG raised the potential circular logic of this Transit Plan, particularly regarding the focus groups that this study will empanel. Focus group participants would most frequently be drawn from the ranks of existing TCAT riders. Therefore, those who may now find TCAT inaccessible, and who might benefit most from the improvements, may be the least likely to participate. “We want to have them in the focus group,” said Yarrow of non-riders, but “we just haven’t organized it yet. “
As to the Enfield commuter run, Route 20, statistics Yarrow presented showed its ridership on the low side for TCAT overall, yet comparable to that of other rural commuter routes. The service’s heaviest usage, to no one’s surprise, involved routes serving the campuses.
One idea TCAT will pursue, said Yarrow, is to establish multiple hubs for route transfers, not just relying exclusively on the downtown Ithaca hub.
And though TCAT’s current facility off Willow Avenue is “working at overcapacity,” TCAT has “paused” during COVID its ambitious plan to construct a new facility, probably near the airport. Because of decreased ridership during the pandemic, Yarrow said the “pain points” caused by the service’s earlier strained capacity, have eased a bit.
Asked about the prospect for all-electric buses, Yarrow acknowledged that’s a “work in progress.” TCAT is set to receive its first fleet of seven electric buses in March 2021. But the chargers for those electric buses are large, portions of those chargers must be kept outdoors, and the chargers could, themselves, pose space problems.
“COVID has thrown us a curve ball in this whole process,” said Yarrow of the TDP. The consultant’s contract was let before the pandemic. So, Yarrow admitted, “We’re going to have a period of rebuilding, and it may be a while before we get to some of the recommendations that come out of this process.”
Caroline’s Marc Witmer raised one of TCAT’s more lofty objectives to enhance rural service, a so -called “First-Mile, Last-Mile” plan, never really described in detail at the meeting; as well as the “on-demand” service earlier implemented on a trial basis in the more developed areas of Lansing and Etna. Yarrow said these plans could be among the “options on the table,” but was cautious about expansion of such services in areas where they might conflict with existing fixed route service. Those enhancements will, however, likely receive attention in the Transit Development Plan’s study.
As a holdover item from TCCOG’s special meeting in September, County Legislator Anna Kelles updated members on the rural broadband study that the Enfield Town Board helped fund with a $5,000 commitment in October, and whose total cost, $80,000 has now been placed within the 2021 Tompkins County Budget, set for adoption next week. Municipal contributions will reduce the County’s financial outlay.
Kelles reported that as of the October 22nd meeting date, six municipalities (Enfield, Newfield, Caroline, Danby, and the Towns of Ithaca and Lansing) had provided a total of $30,000 to help defray the County’s cost. Kelles indicated more municipalities may join in. Ithaca Alderperson George McGonigal said he’d urge the City of Ithaca to join in funding the study as well. Kelles noted that even though the City has adequate Internet service, rates charged by the current provider (Spectrum) are high, and increased competition could lower cost.
Kelles acknowledged that if the broadband study bears fruit, and the non-profit Southern Tier Network (STN) extends its cables into Enfield and elsewhere, there may be “some redundancy,” with existing providers, including Haefele locally. But, she added, Haefele could actually contract with STN to “light” the “dark fiber” that STN builds; in other words, to program the new service.
“Some service providers cannot build their own wires,” Kelles explained. What’s more, given STN’s multi-county reach, “Regionality will create stability” that we don’t have given the “patchwork we now have.”
Robert Lynch, Councilperson
Enfield TCCOG Representative