What if you got your money back every time your subway ride ran late?
It may become reality in Washington, D.C., where officials are considering a new refund policy if a rush-hour bus or subway trip is delayed by 15 minutes or more. The proposal got an early approval last Thursday and will get a board vote later this month.
According to the Washington Post, officials see the refund policy as a way to draw back riders who have abandoned the system during service disruptions to repair tracks. But they say it’s also a way to force new accountability on the agency.
“I think for the customer, they really need to feel that and understand that we’re committed to it, and we’re holding ourselves accountable, and we’re willing to put something on the line to reinforce that,” said Paul J. Wiedefeld, general manager of the Washington Metro.
Here in Boston, the T used to offer refunds but has dropped them, citing the lost revenue.
In 2011, the T abandoned the policy that allowed passengers to seek refunds for poor service. At the time, the agency said the refund system was the only one of its kind in the United States and that ending the refund program would save about $1 million a year.
Customers were still able to get refunds for unused portions of commuter rail passes and 10-ride passes until that policy was ended in 2016, saving up to $400,000 a year.
During the harsh winter of 2015, the issue reared its head again. As some passengers demanded their money back when the system experienced multiple shutdowns in February, Governor Charlie Baker floated the idea of refunds as a “good will gesture.” Instead, the T settled on a free day of rides in April 2015, and then offered a 15 percent discount on weekly and monthly passes in May.
A class-action lawsuit sought refunds for commuter rail passengers but was thrown out by a judge in 2016, who said the T “had no express contractual obligation to provide ‘normal’ or ‘regular’ commuter rail service.”
Might that signal any interest in rehashing the refunds? Seems unlikely. MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo declined to answer the question, instead saying: “All of the MBTA’s efforts are focused on improving services across all modes.”
Ocean State boost
Meanwhile, commuter rail passengers in Rhode Island just wrapped a six-month period of free rides within the state.
Between July and the end of 2017, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation paid the T to sponsor free rides within the state on the commuter rail. Passengers who boarded at Wickford Junction or T.F. Green Airport had the Rhode Island portion of their trips discounted; those traveling onto Massachusetts or who boarded in Providence for Boston still had to pay the posted fare for that portion of the ride.
It was a bid to boost ridership among Rhodies, who have not flocked to the stations south of Providence in the numbers once expected. So, what was the impact?
‘All of the MBTA’s efforts are focused on improving services across all modes.— Joe Pesaturo, T spokesman, when asked if the MBTA is considering refunds
Across the commuter rail system, there have always been issues with the accuracy of passenger counts, since they are not counted electronically. And the discount wasn’t exactly massive: a trip between Wickford Junction and Boston cost just $1 less with the discount.
Nonetheless, Charles St. Martin, a spokesman for Rhode Island’s transportation department, said there was a significant increase in traffic once the discounts were available.
Daily ridership at the Wickford Junction stop in North Kingstown increased to 571 during the period, up from 278 a day in the first half of 2017. Still, that’s a far cry from long-ago projections that some 3,400 passengers would once use Wickford Junction every day.
The airport stop had a smaller bump, to 463 a day, from an average of 370 in 2016.
St. Martin said surveys showed the largest chunk of riders who took advantage of the program were in it for the long haul, trekking all the way from Wickford Junction to Boston.Adam Vaccaro can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro.