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No refunds yet for passholders as MBTA struggles with loss of riders

The T is reviewing whether employer-sponsored passes for April can be delayed

On the first day of a reduced MBTA schedule, a passenger waited at the Wollaston stop during the morning commute.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The MBTA confirmed Tuesday that it will not issue refunds on monthly passes for March, and it could not make any promises about passes already locked in for April, as the transit authority struggles to get a grip on a rapidly deteriorating financial picture amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Many commuters home from work will have gotten only about half the value from their March monthly passes, which cost$55 for a bus-only pass, $90 for a bus-and-subway pass, and as high as $426 for commuter rail passes for far-flung locations.

The T has for several years had a no-refund policy, and officials are sticking with it for March passes, spokesman Joe Pesaturo confirmed. Most infamously, riders were denied refunds during the winter shutdowns of 2015, when snowstorms closed portions of the subway and commuter rail systems for days.

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There may be some hope for April for the riders who get passes automatically renewed each month through employee benefit programs that deduct the costs from their paychecks. Pesaturo said the T is working on a recommendation to agency policy makers about how to best handle those passes, as it looks increasingly likely many commuters will still be at home into next month.

Some of these benefit programs are handled not by the T but by third-party companies, such as Waltham-based Edenred Commuter Benefit Solutions, which locked in passes for April just days before the coronavirus in effect shut down American life. That company recommended commuters reach out to “whomever they used to obtain a pass” about potential refunds, which could be their human resources departments or benefits managers. A Globe reporter was told by an Edendred customer service representative that he could get a credit if he sent his April pass back upon receiving it.

The questions about refunds reflect a larger reality for the MBTA and transit systems across the country: they, like the business world, are getting walloped. National transit advocates are sounding the alarm that transit agencies are going to see both a loss of fare revenue in the short term and shortfalls in funding from local governments over the long term that could severely threaten daily operations.

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The T, for example, has been expecting a $2.3 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year, based in part on an optimistic outlook for sales tax collections that will be nearly impossible to meet if the state falls into a recession.

Meanwhile, ridership is down by as much as 60 or 70 percent on some lines, depriving the T of millions in fare, parking, and potentially even advertising revenues.

The MBTA said that for now it’s focusing on its immediate response to the pandemic, not the balance sheet, but acknowledged there will be financial issues.

“It’s abundantly clear that the pandemic will negatively impact fare revenue, but right now the MBTA is focused on priorities of a more urgent nature,” Pesaturo said. “The T will conduct a thorough analysis of pandemic-related costs and revenue at another time.”

The T has reduced service as ridership falls, but that comes with risks as well; on Tuesday, for example, some early morning Blue Line trains were packed, preventing riders from the kind of “social distancing” that could slow the spread of disease. The T said it would run extra Blue Line service Wednesday.

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That’s an example of why transit agencies can’t just cut service to save money during the pandemic, said Ben Fried, spokesman for the New York-based advocacy group TransitCenter. There must be enough service so as to limit crowding, meaning the more money lost, the better public is, health-wise.

“We need to maintain transit service during this time so essential workers like doctors and nurses can get around. And we don’t want to send people onto the road because traffic crashes are going to happen and we don’t want them to take up hospital capacity,” Fried said. “But the transit system has to be a space where people can keep their distance. The combination is screaming out for assistance.”

Fried said that given the financial straits transit agencies are facing, riders shouldn’t expect refunds.

Congress should help transit agencies balance their budgets, said Steve Davis, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Transportation for America. He noted that while airlines and the travel industry have been loudly advocating for assistance, there hasn’t been the same urgency from transit agencies.

“Congress needs to be thinking about a bailout for transit now,” Davis said. “We’ve been talking to a handful of people at agencies, and they’re all saying we’re in trouble.”

There has been at least some recognition of the problem in Washington; lawmakers have reportedly discussed public transit aid as part of another bailout bill. And the Federal Transit Administration has allowed agencies flexibility to use grant money for daily operations amid the pandemic.

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In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker has noted the state’s $3.5 billion rainy day fund could help address many issues, though that money could dry up fast, given the impact the pandemic is likely to have on the state’s coffers.

The state House of Representatives recently passed a bill to raise more money for transportation, which included a gas tax increase. The Senate had also planned to take up transportation financing soon, but it seems uncertain those ideas of just a few weeks ago will get a hearing, given the scale of the coronavirus crisis.

A spokesman for Senate President Karen Spilka said the coronavirus response is the top priority, and “conversations around the development of policy in other areas are ongoing.”