The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a massive infrastructure bill that includes limousine safety provisions local members of Congress have been pushing for since the October 2018 crash in Schoharie that killed 20 people.
The vote was 233-188 on the Moving Forward Act, a $1.5 trillion bill that Republicans nearly unanimously opposed, and which President Donald Trump has threatened to veto.
The limo law changes are a small part of a bill that included new funding for roads and bridges, clean energy, expanded broadband access and other Democratic priorities.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made addressing these challenges all the more urgent, and the investments we choose to make now will help us to build back stronger and help create a better future for every American,” said U.S. Rep. Paul D. Tonko, D-Amsterdam.
“Whether in the form of vital limousine safety reforms, expanded broadband internet access, improved clean energy infrastructure that will help us combat climate change, or funding for safe drinking water systems for our Capital Region, these investments could not be more timely,” he added.
Republicans, however, criticized some of the priorities and the amount Democrats are looking to spend, which would mostly or entirely be borrowed.
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Saratoga, who supported the limousine reforms when they were initially proposed last fall, voted against the bill, as did all but three Republican members of Congress.
The three limousine safety improvement initiatives were highlighted by Tonko — who represents the Amsterdam area that many of the victims were from or had ties to — and U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, the two Democrats in the Capital Region delegation, during a conference call prior to the vote.
The provisions included:
-- The Take Unsafe Limos Off the Road Act, which encourages states to impound or immobilize vehicles that fail safety inspections.
-- The Safe Limousines Act, which would set new federal stretch limousine safety rules and standards for seat belts and seat integrity, create a federal definition of stretch limousines, and fund crash safety research.
-- The End the Limo Loophole Act, which would reclassify vehicles that carry more than nine passengers (but less than 18 passengers) as commercial vehicles, requiring them to comply with the more-rigorous standards that apply to vehicles that carry 18 or more passengers.
There were 17 passengers in the 2001 Ford Excursion stretch limo that crashed at the intersection of routes 30 and 30A in Schoharie on Oct. 6, 2018, killing all the passengers, the driver, and two pedestrians. The passengers, all young adults, were on their way to a birthday celebration in Cooperstown. Many of the passengers were residents of Fulton and Montgomery counties.
State police investigators concluded the brakes failed as the limousine came down a long hill, after the vehicle was kept on the road by the limousine company despite it having failed state safety inspections. The operator, Nauman Hussain, faces second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges that are pending in Schoharie County Court.
Tonko and Delgado have been working on the legislation since a few weeks after the crash, and this spring were able to get their provisions included in the infrastructure bill, which includes $494 billion over five years for transportation infrastructure.
Both on Wednesday thanked the families of the victims, who they said have worked closely with them.
“My big thing, and I think for a lot of the families, is taking (unsafe vehicles) out of service,” said Janet Steenburg of Amsterdam, who lost two sons in the crash. ”People assume they are safe... That’s what the kids did when they rented the limo, they just assumed it was safe.”
Steenburg was among those who participated in a conference call with Tonko and Delgado prior to the vote.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that had this legislation been passed prior to October 2018 this tragedy would never have happened,” said Kevin Cushing, who lost his 31-year-old son Patrick in the crash.
In January, the state Legislature passed and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a package of bills that tightened rules on stretch limousines in state, but family members and legislators said it’s important that stronger rules apply nationally, so limousines can’t be moved from state to state to avoid strict regulations.
“This is a pretty simple issue in terms of the fix, and we in government need to be able to demonstrate to the American people that we can move the ball,” Delgado said during the call.
No near-term action is foreseen in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, and the White House earlier this week threatened to veto the bill if the Senate were to pass it.
Stefanik, who on Wednesday was caught up in a separate controversy over her failure to attend recent House Intelligence Committee briefings she said lacked the necessary security, did not respond by early evening to a request for explanation on her vote against the bill.
A White House memo reported by The Hill called the bill “heavily skewed toward programs that would disproportionately benefit America’s urban areas” while appearing to be “financed solely by the government taking on additional debt.”
Republicans have also complained they were excluded from crafting the bill, and the veto-threat message repeatedly said Democrats failed to provide a bipartisan piece of legislation.
Reach staff writer Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter