The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has long sought new rules to enhance safety on amphibious “duck tour” boats. The agency got its wish with passage of the year-end defense spending bill.
The $857 billion National Defense Authorization Act requires the Coast Guard to begin rulemaking within six months on a host of new safety measures that arose during investigations into fatal incidents involving DUKW or “duck” tour boats.
The rules address issues including reserve buoyancy requirements, removal of canopies and windows that can block egress during emergencies, and new training for operators.
“We applaud lawmakers for their bold action to improve DUKW boat safety, something the NTSB has been concerned about for more than 20 years,” NTSB Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said. “But it shouldn’t take an act of Congress to address known safety issues for any vessel, and it certainly shouldn’t take decades.”
The DUKW safety rules are just one of many provisions found within the defense bill and companion legislation that will impact the maritime industry. Other provisions include new funding for U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd) programs, enhanced sexual assault and harassment (SASH) protections, and funding authorizations to supporting Soo Locks upgrades and construction of a third Coast Guard heavy icebreaker.
The $1.6 billion MarAd authorization allocates $750 million toward the Port Infrastructure Development Program, $120 million toward the Tanker Security Program and $112.8 million for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA). State maritime academies will receive $53.7 million in support. The Small Shipyard Grant Program received $30 million for facility improvements, and $15 million was set aside to promote the Marine Highway Program.
The act also calls for a new national strategy to grow the U.S. maritime economy; establishes a Maritime Innovation Center to explore cleaner fuels and propulsion, as well as efforts to reduce undersea noise; contains new SASH protections for USMMA students; and includes a grant program to increase the number of maritime workers in the offshore wind industry.
“This bill makes critical investments in America’s maritime workforce, shipyards and port infrastructure that are key to keeping our supply chains moving,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said when introducing the legislation.
The $18.6 billion Coast Guard authorization bill gives Coast Guard members a 4.6 percent raise and allocates $172 million over five years to build a fleet of 12 52-foot motor lifeboats. It also authorizes $167 million toward the acquisition of a third polar security cutter for heavy icebreaking.
The Coast Guard bill also includes new provisions aimed at addressing sexual assault and harassment at sea. The language builds on Every Mariner Builds a Respectful Culture (EMBARC) standards that emerged following a series of high-profile sexual assault incidents in recent years.
One provision within the Coast Guard authorization calls for vessel operators to install “video and audio surveillance equipment” in crew spaces on oceangoing vessels with at least 10 crewmembers, according to the American Waterways Operators (AWO). Vessel owners have up to two years to install the equipment.
The legislation also requires the Coast Guard to study the creation of a credentialed mariner database, which would be similar to those found in other industries, including aviation.
The defense bill contains new standards for Jones Act waivers, which must now be issued by the president when responding to matters of national defense. The process of issuing blanket waivers has been eliminated. The AWO, which supported the change, expects it will result in fewer waivers overall.
The nearly $25 billion Water Resources Development Act that passed as part of the year-end legislation authorized federal funding for dredging in New York Harbor, Tacoma Harbor in Washington, Brunswick Harbor in Georgia, and the Port of Long Beach. It also increased the funding authorization, up to $3.2 billion overall, to address rising costs associated with completing the new lock structure at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
“The Soo Locks in particular is an absolutely vital national security issue,” said Eric Peace, vice president of the Lake Carriers’ Association. “If the Poe Lock goes down, it will shut down North American manufacturing. That is how vital it was to lift that authorization to $3.2 billion.”
The water resources legislation also clarified, for at least eight years, the cost-sharing provision that pays for lock and dam construction and rehabilitation. During that period, the ratio will remain at 65 percent federal revenues and 35 percent from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which collects money from a fuel tax. Not long ago, that split was 50-50.
Deb Calhoun, senior vice president of the Waterways Council Inc., said maintaining the 65-35 split allows more money to be allocated toward critical infrastructure projects. That, in turn, will ensure these projects get completed faster than under a 50-50 split.