TCAT looks to relocate as airport neighbor

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On Dec. 6, the TCAT Board of Directors voted to focus on the Ithaca Tompkins International Airport area as the location of its new facility and expansion, according to a recent press release.

Wendel consultants helped to limit the options to seven area locations, and the final decision was down to either the airport area at Warren and Cherry roads or the Vanguard industrial site at 17 Hallwoods Rd.

TCAT General Manager Scot Vanderpool said the airport area site holds many benefits over the Vanguard site, including allowing TCAT to build its own facility from scratch to meet exact specifications. In addition, it offers unique funding opportunities and the ability for the airport and TCAT to share services like fueling, which will further reduce costs.

Vanderpool said TCAT very much wanted to stay at its current location on Willow Avenue, but it just wasn’t practical, especially since it would cost upwards of $30 million to renovate it to meet TCAT’s needs.

“It’s a great location. It’s close to everything,” Vanderpool said. “Four or five months ago, we finally said, there’s just too many negatives for staying here. We’re landlocked. You’ve got the golf course, you’ve got the railroad tracks, you’ve got development cropping up. … It just became very apparent that, as much as we wanted to stay there, we just couldn’t.”

Airport Director Mike Hall said TCAT’s expansion near the airport will help create a central transit hub for the county.

“A locus of transportation or a transportation hub right in the center of the county made sense to us as an airport to help people get to downtown from the airport, from the airport to the world,” Hall said.

Dan Klein, a TCAT board of directors member, said TCAT provides over 4 million rides per year, and it’s only continued to grow in recent years. He and the rest of the board project more growth in the coming years, and TCAT’s three partners – the city of Ithaca, Tompkins County and Cornell University – all have said they want more service to meet growing demand. All of this proved an expansion was long overdue, Klein said.

The expansion will allow room for other projects and programs TCAT is looking to pursue, Vanderpool said, like having an all-battery electric fleet by 2035. In addition, the current TCAT facility doesn’t have enough room and equipment for staff to properly work on maintaining the buses. The airport site will allow TCAT to build infrastructure to support an electric fleet and additional maintenance resources.

Klein added that TCAT needs a new site to begin to explore additional services like a downtown circulator route and free fares.

“We know that it would increase ridership and increase the amount of buses we need and the amount of employees we need, but we can’t do it where we are,” Klein said. “So, before we can even consider whether we want to do that, we need a new facility. … We are bursting at the seams.”

Hall said he looks forward to working with TCAT further on this project, as the expansion could prove mutually beneficial for TCAT and the airport.

“Any public system that moves people is beneficial to the economy of Tompkins County because it helps people get around more efficiently, and so, the airport in this case would benefit because we would have enhanced bus service, I’m sure, just because of proximity,” Hall said. “This seems to be a well-integrated concept where the efficiency of public transportation would improve the efficiency of the airport because you would have more seamless integration of air and ground transportation.”

Some locations being considered included the Chain Works District, the former Crispell Garage on Slateverille Road, the NYSEG building on Route 13 and the Southwest Park site behind Walmart. Vanderpool said TCAT tried for years to find a suitable location that was closer to the city and its current location.

“It was 2015 when we started this. We have been diligently trying to find a place, and we’ve looked at every single opportunity that was out there,” he said. “We brought in consultants that were helping us out for three years to try to find a place to move to. There’s just not a lot of places in the city that are available, so the best two options were Vanguard and the airport, … and they’re both further away.”  

A recent press release said the estimated cost to build a new airport area facility was $55 million, while renovating the Vanguard site was $27 million. Despite the airport facility costing over twice as much, Klein said the airport provided far greater opportunities for cost-savings and expansion. However, he said, the expansion will be more expensive than the current location and operations.

“We know this is going to cost more to operate at this location simply because it’s further away and because it’s larger. I don’t want that hidden,” he said. “It is the reality that if we all want more service, … we’re going to have to pay for it in the future.”

Klein said to make up for increased operating costs, TCAT’s three partners’ contributions will likely have to increase so fares can remain consistent. In addition, expansion will allow for more buses, more routes and more passengers, which will increase reimbursement TCAT receives from the state, further helping to make up for that increased cost.

TCAT Board Chairman Ducson Nguyen said in a recent press release that, if the project moves forward, it would mostly be funded by the Federal Transit Administration, as with any significant transit capital projects. State and local funds would pay for the remainder of the project.

“It’s really important that we do our due diligence internally to find every source of funding that we can, and if we do our job, I think there’s going to be more potential to get something additional bigger from federal or New York state,” Vanderpool said.

Klein said the next step is reporting and gathering data to apply for federal funding through the National Environmental Policy Act, a process expected to take up to nine months to complete.

The decision is tentative for now, and board members can re-evaluate their decision if more information comes out showing the airport would not be ideal.

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