The MTA is changing its rules to give some Long Island Rail Road commuters who are not riding the trains as frequently more leeway in using money stuck in transit benefit accounts, and is calling on federal officials to do the same.
Responding to complaints from less-active LIRR riders over their inability to access pretax dollars they set aside for transit costs — but have no use for because they don’t commute at the same level anymore — the railroad said Monday that it will allow Mail & Ride customers to spend funds in their accounts to purchase Ten-Trip Tickets, valid for six months.
On Tuesday morning, LIRR officials said they would allow Mail & Ride customers to use their balances to purchase other types of tickets as well, including for single rides.
Many longtime LIRR customers, who stopped commuting during the coronavirus pandemic, find themselves with hundreds of dollars sitting in accounts administered by programs such as WageWorks. Internal Revenue Service regulations prohibit account holders from receiving refunds, or from using the money on anything other than transit costs.
As reported by Newsday, the problem has given rise to a black market of LIRR ticket sales, with former commuters soliciting current commuters to buy their tickets at a discount.
Customers enrolled in the LIRR’s Mail & Ride subscription program had even fewer options, as the funds could only be used for monthly railroad commuter passes. The change in policy allows enrollees to use their balances to purchase other kinds of tickets.
In a message to customers, the railroad said it recognized that "due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many Mail & Ride customers have experienced changes to their commuting patterns, including a reduced need for the use of monthly tickets.
"The opportunity to use your pretax credit balance for Ten-Trip tickets is entirely optional. If you take no action, your funds will remain on your account for future use," the railroad said.
LIRR president Phillip Eng on Monday added his voice to those urging the federal government to find a way to help commuters recoup unused fare dollars. Eng said that while the LIRR’s change to its Mail & Ride program "will help some customers, it won’t completely alleviate the matter.
"I call on the IRS to find a solution that allows LIRR customers to get back — in one form or another — their hard-earned dollars that are building up in pretax benefits accounts," Eng added. "The MTA is also reaching out to members of our congressional delegation to work toward a solution as quickly as possible."
The LIRR has about 3,800 customers enrolled in its Mail & Ride program — a sharp drop since before the pandemic began. LIRR weekday ridership remains at around 25% of pre-pandemic levels.
Glenn Bolnick, of Levittown, who has been sitting on about $600 of unused funds in his Mail & Ride account since he began working from home in March, said the policy change was a "step in the right direction" for those who still go into the office every so often.
"But those who are working from home without a return date — we're still stuck in the same boat," said Bolnick, 40.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the price of a Long Island Rail Road Ten-Trip Ticket. They can be bought for the cost of ten off-peak trips.