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Laurelton activist accuses LIRR of highway robbery

Now Blake is organizing a petition drive, demanding the Long Island Rail Road change its policy to allow conductors to waive the fee in such cases.

"This is not the first time this has happened to me," he said. "I don't feel I should be continually penalized because of the equipment failure of the Long Island Rail Road."

Blake, a counselor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, was heading to work about 10 a.m. on May 13 via the LIRR, he said. When he arrived at the Laurelton station, on 141st Road between 224th and 225th streets, he found the ticket vending machine was out of order, he said.

The machine was reported down about 8:49 a.m. and it was restored about noon, said Sam Zambuto, a spokesman for the LIRR.

Blake and about 12 others hoping to buy tickets boarded the train empty-handed and explained the situation to the conductor. But the conductor told them he was bound by policy to impose the $3 surcharge for paying the fare on the train, Blake said.

"I had to change trains at Jamaica, and I said I was willing to go to Jamaica, go to a ticket window and buy a full fare ticket, but he said no," Blake said, referring to the conductor.

Blake also appealed unsuccessfully to the conductor's supervisor, he said.

When the train pulled into the Jamaica station, it was met by Metropolitan Transportation Authority police who detained Blake and the train until he paid the ticket price plus the $3 surcharge, he said.

"They wouldn't let the Brooklyn train leave until I paid, so I was holding up all the trains," he said, referring to the train he had boarded at Laurelton.

The LIRR does refund the $3 fee to passengers who pay the surcharge even though there was no way for them to buy tickets off the train, but the riders must call the railroad, get a form and send it back, Zambuto said.

"What is normally done if a machine is not operating, the customer does have to pay the on-board fare and then submit for a refund so that the records on the machine can be checked," he said.

While Blake has said this has happened to him and others he spoke with many times before, Zambuto said the machines are reliable 96 percent of the time. Of the 4 percent of the time the machines are malfunctioning, most of them can vend tickets in some capacity - by only accepting credit cards or exact change, for example, and only 1 percent go down completely, he said.

But Blake is pushing for the LIRR to change its policy and give conductors discretion over imposing the surcharge, he said. He would also like to see an additional machine at the Laurelton station to serve as a backup to the existing one, or a ticket counter with a human teller, he said.

"We have to deal with this as a community," he said. "This not only affects Laurelton, it also affects any station where there's only one machine. This is not something we can just let happen."

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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