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DOT denies Schoharie Route 30-30A safety FOIL request

DOT denies Schoharie Route 30-30A safety FOIL request

Data behind safety concerns about limo crash intersection at issue
DOT denies Schoharie Route 30-30A safety FOIL request
An NTSB investigators and a state trooper survey the site of this fall's horrific limo crash in this October file photo.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

The state Department of Transportation has denied public access to records concerning internal deliberations about the safety of the Route 30-30A intersection in Schoharie, where an October stretch limousine crash killed 20 people.

Department administrators on Thursday denied a request by the Daily Gazette newspaper under the state's Freedom of Information Law for those records, which could provide relevant information concerning the cause of the Oct. 6 crash in which the limousine went through a stop sign at the bottom of a hill on Route 30.

The Gazette is considering appealing the decision.

The state's letter cites that disclosure of the records could interfere with law enforcement investigations, and that they are also exempt from disclosure as inter-agency or intra-agency materials that pre-decision and contain "opinions, evaluations, deliberations, policy formulations, proposals, conclusions, recommendations or other subjective matter."

Robert Freeman, executive director the state's Committee on Open Government, said that while records of opinions or evaluations can be withheld, it is likely statistical or factual information that must be disclosed is also in the state's records in the intersection.

"There has to be factual and statistical information that should be subject to disclosure under the law," Freeman said on Friday.

He also said he didn't see how disclosure of information could interfere with any law enforcement investigation. "How can disclosure cause harm to a law enforcement investigation?" Freeman said.

DOT's FOIL office did not respond to a request for response to Freeman's points.

The Daily Gazette filed a FOIL request on Oct. 10 for DOT safety records on the Route 30-Route 30A intersection, as the intersection was a focus of attention in the days immediately after the horrendous crash of a 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limousine, which killed 17 passengers going to Cooperstown to celebrate a birthday, the driver, and two pedestrians.

The stretched vehicle came down a long hill bringing Route 30 downhill from Route 7 to Route 30A, then went through a stop sign at a significant speed, through the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Country Store, and into a shallow ravine. All involved, most of whom were from Amsterdam or had connections to that community, were killed.

Subsequently, limousine company operator Nauman Hussain of Cohoes has been charged with criminally negligent homicide, because the aging limousine had failed commercial inspections due to faulty brakes and other issues, and the driver was operating out of his license class.

But the safety of the intersection is at the heart of an initial claim against the state filed last Monday by the estate of one of the victims, Amanda Rifenburg of Colonie.

That claim states that the intersection of routes 30 and 30A was a known dangerous intersection, and that state transportation officials had not addressed the issues there.

Since 2008, when the intersection was reconstructed to eliminate an angled approach, turning the intersection from a Y shape into a T shape, but adding a curve to Route 30 at the bottom of the hill. The state subsequently reduced weight limits on the mile-long hill leading south to the intersection, based on concerns about trucks coming down the grade -- and in 2015, the state banned commercial trucks from coming down the hill.

The FOIL denial leaves the details behind those decisions unavailable. A DOT spokesman said in October there had only been four other accidents at that intersection in the previous 10 years.

Salvatore Ferlazzo, the Albany attorney representing Rifenburg's estate, said Friday that the state has ignored his FOIL request for the same records.

"They can't just say, blanket, there's an investigation and so there's a blanket denial under FOIL," Ferlazzo said. "They have to release it if there was factual information that was compiled proceeding this investigation. There is no exception for, 'I don't feel like giving it.'"

All the records will have to be disclosed to Ferlazzo if the Rifenburg claim turns into a lawsuit, and state records are subject to a court-supervised discovery process.

"The fact they are not responded to legitimate FOIL requests makes be think there's much more there," Ferlazzo said.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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