Unused transit funds in limbo for former LIRR commuters three years after pandemic
Lapsed Long Island Rail Road riders who stopped taking the train near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic are still waiting to get back hundreds of dollars locked in commuter benefit accounts for which they have no use.
But a pair of bills in Congress that aim to reunite former commuters with their money have stalled, and, without a new sponsor, are unlikely to go anywhere, officials said.
“I’m not getting my hopes up at this stage, because three years have lapsed,” said former Babylon commuter Bernie Poelker, who was laid off from his finance job in March of 2020 with about $600 in commuting expenses already set aside in an account administered by employee benefit provider WiredCommute.
Poelker since has retired, and said he’s got no reason to take the LIRR anymore. “If I’m not going to use that money, I’d like to get it back in some way, shape or form," he said.
WHAT TO KNOW:
Lapsed LIRR commuters who stopped taking the train near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic are still unable to recoup money sitting in pretaxed transit fund accounts.
Federal lawmakers proposed legislation last year to allow for refunds, but the bills have stalled, in part because some of their original sponsors have left office. The legislation would need to be reintroduced to move ahead.
- The LIRR said former monthly ticket holders could draw down on their Mail & Ride accounts over time by buying other kinds of tickets.
Proposed in May 2022, the COVID-19 Commuter Benefits Distribution Act would address a situation faced by thousands of former LIRR commuters like Poelker, who stopped taking the train to work around the beginning of the pandemic, and never returned.
Pretaxed money that was deducted from their paychecks monthly remains trapped in special accounts overseen by benefit administrators. IRS rules prohibit the funds from being withdrawn, refunded or spent on anything other than transit costs.
The original sponsor of the bipartisan House bill, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), left office this year, along with two co-sponsors, Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove). A new sponsor would need to reintroduce the legislation for it to move forward, according to the office of Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-Bayport), a co-sponsor.
Representatives for Garbarino, Nick LaLota (R-Amityville) and Anthony D’Esposito (R-Island Park) said they were all reviewing the legislation. Matt Capp, a spokesman for D'Esposito — who succeeded Rice — said in a statement that the congressman "supports the goal" of the original legislation, and is "also exploring other avenues for Congress to help commuters access unused transit funds."
A Senate bill co-sponsored by Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, both Democrats from New York, also has not been acted upon since being introduced on May 12, 2022.
“We continue to look for options to pass the bill so Long Islanders can access the money they originally set aside,” Schumer spokesman Angelo Roefaro said in a statement.
The LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s state-regulated rider advocacy group, pushed to have remaining balances on transit accounts be taxed, and then returned to account holders. But, with nearly 70% of LIRR riders since having returned to their commutes, the urgency for a solution has waned, and council chairman Gerard Bringmann said he’s “chalked that up in the loss column.”
“If, by chance, this thing does raise its head again, we would definitely support it, because we want our people to have an opportunity to get their money again,” Bringmann said. “But I think the original ship sailed, and sunk.”
It remains unclear how many lapsed commuters still have money in transit accounts that aren’t being used, but a rider with just one month’s worth of commuting costs locked away would likely be out more than $300, based on the average price of a monthly LIRR ticket.
Even after stopping taking the LIRR near the beginning of the pandemic, Christine Geitschier, of Westbury, let $1,900 build up in her transit account, assuming she would one day return to commuting full time. She since has retired.
“It’s still sitting somewhere. I have no idea who is even holding the money at this point,” said Geitschier, who believes a solution to the problem would benefit all parties, as she’d get her money back, and the IRS would collect taxes on it. “Take your 20%, or whatever, and get this done … I’m not losing hope, but I think it’s going to be difficult moving forward, because I don’t know if anybody is going to be the champion anymore, politician-wise.”
LIRR officials declined to comment on the situation, but pointed out that, in response to the problem, the railroad in 2021 relaxed its rules to let Mail & Ride account holders use remaining balances on any kind of ticket, and not just monthly tickets, as originally required. So lapsed commuters can draw down their balances over time by making occasional trips on the LIRR.
Account holders also have the option to have the money returned to the third-party benefit provider to be converted to cover other kinds of commuting costs, including parking, LIRR officials said.