April editorial: This is going to hurt rail agencies, but it’s the right thing to do

Written by Bill Wilson, Editor-in-Chief

I’m preparing for the body aches.

No, I do not have COVID-19 (at least I think I do not have it), but the coronavirus is partly behind it. Since all activities have been canceled for my three children, I have found myself fighting off boredom with a pool noodle. I’m not winning. So in mid-March my daughter said she wanted me to paint her room for her birthday. Seeing that my calendar was a blank slate, I figured I would get a good punch in with boredom and get to work changing four lavender walls to a light gray color. In two days I know my 50-year-old body is going to remind myself how bad it is to put my 6-ft 6-in. frame in unorthodox positions, like sitting on my knees as I work the paint trimmer or stretching my arm out with the roller. Yes, those are unorthodox for me, and my body reacts the same way every time … it waits a couple days before letting me have it.

That’s my coronavirus story so far, and if that is as dark as it gets for me, I will happily take the option of being surrounded by four light-gray-colored walls with sunlight separating itself through the blinds.

This is indeed unchartered territory, territory that is being re-staked daily as the country (or should I say states?) attempts to flatten the curve. Businesses have been nuked, but many are still doing the right thing. Major airlines are allowing customers to cancel flights without change fees, utilities and telecommunication companies are waiving late fees, and Sound Transit even suspended fares in mid-March.

The Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) is still stuck in the pre-coronavirus era. Thousands of riders stopped using mass transit in early March, and when they attempted to get a refund for their monthly LIRR ticket, the agency dropped two quarters in their lap, if they dropped anything at all. LIRR monthly passes cost anywhere from $197 to $500, and after most used just a few days worth, they got a 50-cent refund. Some were left empty handed. When questioned, LIRR pointed to its refund policy, which has been in place since the days of good health and when we were all able to shop, play and work without wearing hazmat suits.

LIRR is not doing the right thing. I really do not blame the transit agency. The sudden sharp decline in transit ridership is slashing the throats of light rail and commuter trains all over the U.S. In mid-March, Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Chairman Patrick Foye asked for $4 billion in relief from the federal government due to the coronavirus. The MTA oversees LIRR operations. The American Public Transportation Association was banging on the Capitol doors demanding a $16 billion bailout for transit agencies. It’s still not enough. Even with federal aid it will still take transit agencies years to recover from this pandemic. The money collected from fares goes towards many things, including general maintenance. I really do not want to think about the world following the coronavirus, at least from a transit perspective. Some maintenance obligations will surely be side-stepped in the attempt to recover.

The LIRR, as well as other agencies, needs to do the right thing. It needs to come up with a new formula to refund those holding March monthly passes. The airlines are losing billions, but they are doing the right thing.

During this time of uncertainty, everyone deserves a feel-good moment, even if it hurts.

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