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Geography will no longer factor into the cost of riding a bus in Tompkins County starting in late summer.

At its regularly scheduled meeting Thursday, TCAT's Board of Directors unanimously agreed to the crux of a new fare structure, effective Sun., Aug., 25, the start of TCAT's fall service period.

Fares will cap at $1.50 for a single adult ride and at 75 cents rides for seniors, youth 17 and under, and persons with disabilities for all riders who will continue to enjoy the existing "the more-you-buy, the more-you-save" volume discounts.

Those benefiting will be riders boarding in Zone 2, which encompasses outlying villages, towns and rural areas. Those riders in 2012 saw their fares jump to $2.50 for a single adult ride and $1.25 for a single half fare. TCAT later eliminated the Zone 2 outbound fare to ease the burden for the few who were paying onerous while traveling short distances within Zone 2.

At last night's meeting, the board said the new structure will not only simplify fares, especially for newcomers, but provide a much-needed financial break to low-income people who have been pushed to live outside the urban core due to the high cost of city housing. And, as lower fares are expected to increase ridership, it dovetails nicely with many local and well-publicized comprehensive plan deadlines to reduce carbon emissions.

"This is an important step to reach our transportation goals; to make it as easy as possible for people to come to work without needing cars or taking up parking spaces," TCAT Board Chairperson Ducson Nguyen told the board Thursday night.

Public Hearing Scheduled

Nonetheless, the board voted to hold a public hearing on July 25 to discuss the Zone 2 outbound fare.

In 2015, TCAT enacted a fare-free policy for Zone 2 outbound riders saying it was unreasonable that some riders were paying a total of $5 roundtrip to travel to and from destinations within Zone 2, some just traveling within a block just to pick up groceries or run errands.

So starting on Aug. 25, those riders will essentially experience a fare increase; instead of paying nothing to head outbound, they will be charged the flat fare of $1.50 in both directions. As such, even though very few riders will be impacted, TCAT is required by federal law to hold a public hearing on the plan before the board can vote on it.

The July 25 meeting is scheduled at 4 p.m., in the large conference room at TCAT, 737 Willow Ave. Following the public hearing, the board will schedule a special meeting at a date yet to be determined to give riders the required 30 days to weigh in with feedback from the date TCAT legal ads are published in local newspapers as well as advertised on the interiors of TCAT's buses, likely next week.

A Long Discussion Over Equity

Over the past several months, TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool, his staff and board members have been discussing a variety of ways to advance equity and assist low-income and other vulnerable populations that need public transit the most.

In announcing the plan at TCAT's Transit Awareness Day open house in downtown Ithaca on June 18, Vanderpool said "we have done our homework" with analysis showing that reducing he inbound Zone 2 fare will be "revenue neutral." Lower fares will be more attractive and are expected to increase ridership. TCAT's largest single source of revenue is from the state, which reimburses TCAT 40.5 cents per ride and .69 cents per mile traveled.

Vanderpool, whose announcement drew many positive comments from community, said at the open house last month: "The lives of everyone in our community and the local economy as a whole are enriched when public transit is accessible and affordable,"

Vanderpool drove that message home at the June 27 board meeting when he read an email from a TCAT rider who wrote in: "I've been a TCAT rider for years and think it is a wonderful service to our community. Lowering the Zone 2 price is a great idea and I thank you. It will make a small difference in the life of most, but a big difference in the lives of those who have the least. Good job!"

More details are forthcoming, but here are some frequently asked questions:

Q. Why is TCAT eliminating fare zone 2?

A. Primarily to address equity concerns in Tompkins County. The high cost of housing in the Ithaca urbanized area has pushed lower income households in to rural areas and outlying villages where they now have to pay a higher Zone 2 bus fare and contend with less frequent bus service. Recent American Community Survey data indicates that, at the county level, bus riders have the 2nd lowest household median income – some $20,000 less than the county-wide median. We know that lower income families depend on transit and we know they are disproportionately affected by the higher Zone 2 fare.

In addition, non-Cornell Zone 2 riders currently have to purchase and carry two cards: one for Zone 2 rides and one for return trips originating in Zone 1. This is a cumbersome system that represents a potential barrier for new riders.

How will the fare change?

A. Eliminating the Zone 2 fare structure would reduce the inbound Zone 2 fare from $2.50 to $1.50 and increase the outbound Zone 2 to Zone 2 fare from $0 to $1.50. Half-fare will be 75 cents for the entire service area.

Will Gadabout fares and ADA paratransit fares be affected?

A. No, Gadabout fares did not increase when TCAT went to a two-zone system in 2012; Gadabout fares will not decrease now. In addition, this change will in no way affect Gadabout's zone system.

Q. Currently, if you pick the bus up in Zone 2 continuing outbound it is free. Is this going to be the same when everything is zone 1? Or will people have to pay?

A. Every ride will now have a base fare of $1.50, including Zone 2 to Zone 2 rides.

Q. What about the Zone 2 rides that I already purchased?

A TCAT is happy to exchange the value of your Zone 2 card to Zone 1 rides. This FAQ will have more specifics by the end of July.

Why not make this change immediately?

A. TCAT is working through the details to ensure that this change is seamless. This change affects many systems and departments within TCAT.

Q. How will this affect TCAT's bottom line?

A. The elimination of the Zone 2 fare structure is estimated to reduce fare revenue by $45,000 per year. However, decreases bus fares have been demonstrated to lead to increasing ridership. With the help of NY State Transit Operating Assistance and the fare revenue from new riders, only 50 new round-trip riders would make this change revenue neutral for TCAT. Based on the experience of other transit agencies, we think this is the most likely outcome.

Q. What if I buy a bus pass from another entity, like my university or college? A. The three institutions of higher-learning have agreements with TCAT to subsidize bus fares. These fares will remain the same unless these institutions make a decision to change their respective fare structures.

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