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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 7, 2008

Speak out for a straight road

A young driver and her passenger died last month after her car went off Route 32 on a stretch of road that was slated to be straightened years ago.

The passenger — Edward Jennings from the Bronx — was pronounced dead at the scene. The driver — Sonja Schwarz, who had lived in Altamont — died at Albany Medical Center. She was 25.

The road was dry and the weather was clear on Jan. 23 when Schwarz crashed into the barn near LaGrange Lane. State Police say unsafe speed contributed to the crash. Trooper Maureen Tuffey told our reporter Tyler Schuling that evidence at the scene — the skid marks, the damage to the 2004 Saturn sedan and to the barn — determined the cause. There was no indication at the scene, Tuffey said, that drugs or alcohol were involved.

We have no reason to doubt the State Police — Schwarz was speeding. But we believe her fate could have been different if the road were straight. As we headed north on Route 32, retracing her course, we saw signs warning motorists of the approaching curve. However, we couldn’t see the degree of the curve until we were on top of the hill. The road turns just at the top, veering to the left; the thrust of a car would move it forward, straight ahead into the barn. As we stood at the top, looking down at the barn where Schwarz crashed, we couldn’t help but think that the configuration of the road was partly to blame.

Over the years, there have been many accidents up and down the road, according to Fred Spaulding, the chief of the Onesquethaw Volunteer Fire Company, which serves that part of New Scotland. He was on the scene when Schwarz and Jennings were extricated from the sedan.

We have submitted a Freedom of Information Law request to the state’s Department of Transportation to find out as much as we can about accidents occurring on that stretch of road.

Since the death of Schwarz and Jennings, we have heard from readers upset that the road has not been straightened.

Nine years ago, in 1999, plans were discussed for straightening Route 32 and the DOT met with the town of New Scotland to decide what should be done with a 19th-Century schoolhouse that would be in the way of straightening the road. The DOT took ownership of the schoolhouse in 2001 and finally moved it in 2004, putting it 500 feet closer to LaGrange Lane. That project, which included moving the schoolhouse and placing it on a new foundation, cost $200,000, Peter VanKeuren, a spokesman for the DOT, said in 2004.

At that time, the DOT projected that the straightening of Route 32 near LaGrange Lane — the site of last month’s fatal accident — would be underway by now.

The schoolhouse still sits vacant as its intended recipient — The Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy — has already outgrown the space. (The conservancy’s director, Jill Knapp, said this week that her organization had been having "a lot of discussion" with the DOT and, once the property is transferred to the conservancy, it hopes to transfer the property to the Clarksville Historical Society.)

And Route 32 still has its dangerous curve.

VanKeuren told us this week that, whenever a fatality occurs on a state highway, the DOT looks at the cause of the accident. It has not yet received the report on the Jan. 23 fatalities, he said.

"We’ve been out there over the past couple of years," he said, "and put up more signs...to delineate a sharp curve ahead." Indeed, on the stretch of road between LaGrange Lane and Onesquethaw Creek Road, there are six markers to warn drivers of approaching bends and speed is marked at 35, 40, and 45 miles per hour.

But the signs are not enough.

While conceding that any fatality is a tragedy, VanKeuren said, "We haven’t found an engineering solution for motorists’ behavior."

Certainly drivers should obey speed signs, but the fact that so many accidents have occurred on the same stretch and that, for years, the DOT has contemplated straightening the road, tells us it should be done. The sooner, the better.

VanKeuren said there are plans to pave Route 32 between Unionville-Feura Bush Road (Route 308) and Flat Rock Road and there "might be some modifications made to curves" as part of that project.

"We’re in the preliminary design phase," he stressed. "We’re keeping an open mind to use the funding that we have."

Those state funds amount to $6 million, VanKeuren said, and he estimated the project would be underway "in two or three years."

How many more people might be hurt in those two or three years"

In 2004, Robert Hansen, a regional capital programmer for the DOT, told us the state’s first priorities are fixing road failure and maintaining road safety.

Straightening Route 32 is a matter of safety.

We asked VanKeuren if public outcry could make a difference in hastening the process.

"It sure does," he said.

We urge our readers who were upset with the recent deaths to write of their concerns to the DOT. VanKeuren also said citizens could ask their town board to write the DOT.

"We have a file of thousands of locations," he said.

Let’s make this location our focus.

Sonja Schwarz’s smile lit up our pages last week. How sad her promising life was cut short. Would a straight stretch of road have saved her" We don’t know. But we do know the project has been planned for too long. It’s time to get it done.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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