CAPITOL -- New state safety legislation for stretch limousines looks like it may pass in 2020, more than a year after the deadly Schoharie limousine crash that killed 20 people.
The topic didn't come up during Gov. Andrew Cuomo's state of the state speech on Wednesday, but he's making new proposals during the 2020 legislative session; legislators close to the situation on Thursday said the Assembly and Senate transportation committees have reached agreement on 10 bills that would stiffen penalties on substandard limousine operators and increase limo safety.
The developments, first reported Thursday by The Capitol Pressroom, follow the Legislature's inability to agree on a substantive set of changes at the end of the 2019 legislative session, the first in the wake of the October 2018 stretch limousine crash in Schoharie that killed 20 people, the worst U.S. transportation crash in nearly a decade.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, and state Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, said separately on Thursday that the bills have been agreement upon.
"I suspect these bills will be taken up first thing when we start voting on bills," Santabarbara said. "These bills have been held up way too long."
Santabarbara, who represents the Amsterdam area where many of the victims lived, is a sponsor of five of the bills. He said he expects the votes within the next couple of weeks.
"Confiscation and impounding is among the bills, better online reporting is there," Santabarbara said. "A toll-free number to report violations, or a smart phone app. Pre-employment and random testing of drivers for drugs and alcohol, and GPS tracking of all vehicles. Also, U-turns on state roads, the most heavily trafficked roads, are prohibited."
In a policy book that accompanied Cuomo's speech on Wednesday, the governor's office said he would propose legislation that requires all occupants of a limo to wear selt belts. It would also increase civil and criminal penalties for violating state regulations that cover limousines. His proposals don't address the legislators' bills agreed on Thursday.
"It's not enough," Santabarbara said of the governor's proposals. "Honestly, the governor should have talked more about this. What he talked about in his briefing book is a fraction of what's needed."
The agreed-on package includes the governor's seat-belt requirement, added by Assemblyman William D. Magnarelli, D-Syracuse, chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee. That committee could vote on the package at a meeting Tuesday in Albany.
Tedisco said he thinks the legislation should have gone onto the books last year, rather than getting hung up on technical issues last June at the end of the legislative session.
"It was about pride of authorship, and that shouldn't be a factor," said Tedisco. "We should have done this last year before session, and we should have had a special session to deal with this. Every day you don't do these bills, you're endangering the lives and safety of people out there."
Tedisco said the governor's proposals are good, but don't go far enough. He supports legislation that would allow the state Department of Transportation to authorize the impounding or seizure of limousines that fail inspections and aren't then repaired. "I don't think what he said is going to realistically cover the bases of what needs to be done," he said.
All the legislative plans relate to a state police investigation's conclusions about the aging limousine involved in the Schoharie crash.
Nauman Hussain, 29, owner of Prestige Limousine of Saratoga Springs, faces trial in 20 charges each of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, based on allegations he took a series of measures to hide failed inspections and mechanical problems with the limousine, a 2001 Ford Excursion. His trial in Schoharie County Court is scheduled for March.
The 18-passenger vehicle was coming down a long hill on state Route 30 on Oct. 6, 2018, when it went through the intersection with Route 30A and crashed, killed all 17 passengers, the driver, and two pedestrians. Prosecutors said the vehicle likely suffered a catastrophic brake failure.
While some limousine safety changes were made last year, there was no agreement between the Assembly and Senate on some of the big changes local legislators said should be a priority.
The impoundment bill would let the state DOT order immobilization of stretch limousines that aren't repaired and are kept on the road after failing a safety inspection, as was allegedly the case with the Schoharie limousine.
"That is by far the most important bill, because it gets these vehicles off the road if there's any kind of problem," Santabarbara said.
Tedisco said he still regularly hears from the families of the victims, many of whom lived in his Senate district and testified at a Senate hearing last May. "They want this done yesterday, and rightly so," he said. "The legacy of what they went through is that it should never happen to anyone else again."
The laws put on the books in 2019, Cuomo noted in his briefing book, included creating a felony for operating a faulty limousine that causes a death, increased civil penalties for violating DOT safety regulations, giving state police and DOT clearer authority to confiscate license plates, and letting the Department of Motor Vehicles revoke registrations for limos that don't meet federal safety standards. Another new law requires state-certified inspection stations to report if a limousine that requires DOT inspection seeks a DMV inspection instead, as Hussain allegedly did.