Coast Guard wants to clarify the rules on when mariners must report bridge hits

Ever since America’s golden age of trains — when railroad owners purposely built bridges that were tricky for mariners to travel under — the issue of bridge transits has been a headache for the maritime industry.

Now, the U.S. Coast Guard is attempting to span the divide between mariners and bridge owners. Coast Guard officials on the East Coast are asking captains to report unsafe bridge conditions on their waterways. The regulators are also attempting to clarify a longstanding source of confusion: exactly when a mariner whose vessel leans on a bridge fender is required to report it as an allision.

The Coast Guard is relying on friendly relations and open dialogue to help convince bridge owners to pay more attention to maintenance for the mariner.

“The most important thing is the partnership, the coordination and the communication and information,” said Gary Kassof, bridge administrator for the 1st Coast Guard District, during the recent Towing Forum at the State University of New York’s Maritime College.

“We have to make sure that mariners can get through and, obviously, at the same time, balancing the needs of land transportation,” Kassof said. “We make sure the bridge owners are living up to their responsibility.”

One of the longest-simmering problems is the question of when a vessel captain must submit a 2692 form reporting an allision to the Coast Guard. Sometimes bridge tenders try to force mariners to report an allision when there is no damage to the wooden fendering. Even the Coast Guard handles these cases differently from sector to sector, according to the American Waterways Operators.

An example that bothers mariners in New England is the Brightman Street Bridge over the Taunton River in Fall River, Mass. In the past, the bridge owner has painted the fender bright yellow. If a vessel emerges from the bridge with yellow streaks on its hull, the bridge tender wouldn’t hesitate to lodge a complaint.

“When sometimes we do a controlled landing on the bridge fendering — and in some ways that’s what these were designed for — the next thing (the mariner) knows is everybody and his brother is out looking for him,” said Bob Clinton, American Waterways’ vice president of safety.

“Everybody’s under the impression that if you do come into contact with the fendering system, then it’s reportable,” said Capt. Patrick Kinnier, McAllister Towing’s port captain at Staten Island, N.Y. “The bridge tender will report to the Coast Guard that the unit came into contact with the bridge.”

Many vessel masters and bridge owners don’t realize that intent makes a difference in these cases.

“When you do notify the bridge that the possibility exists that you may have to lean on the fendering system to ensure safe passage, when is that a reportable offense? That’s the part that confuses the mariner,” Kinnier told Professional Mariner. “I would say it’s one of the things that needs to be defined. If they knocked down a fender or a piling or knocked it askew, then of course there’s damage there.”

Under the regulations governing notice of marine casualties, vessel owners must notify the Coast Guard if a vessel is involved in “an unintended strike of (allision with) a bridge.”

If the contact was intended, the captain must report it if there is damage that “creates a hazard to navigation, the environment, or the safety of a vessel,” or if the incident caused an injury.

Mariners should act responsibly and realize that bridge fenders are not designed to withstand all kinds of contact with vessels.

“It’s not there to be used as a pivot point,” Kassof said. “If they find that your vessel rubbed up against it and did damage, the bridge owner may seek compensation from you for it.”

At the same time, bridge owners — state transportation departments, railroads, economic development agencies — are responsible for accommodating mariners by maintaining safe bridge conditions.

Kassof said bridge owners are required to maintain fenders and lighting under the spans. They must promptly correct fender irregularities, including missing or broken wales, a fender protruding into the channel, exposed metal, bolts not recessed, dolphin clusters leaning, a broken or dirty clearance gauge or inaccurate signs.

Bridge owners need Coast Guard approval for any channel closures, drawbridge closures, platform or scaffold suspensions and welding or hot work.

Sometimes bridge owners think they can wait for a fender to wear out and then blame the unlucky mariner who happened to be leaning on it when it fell apart, said Capt. Eric Johansson, associate professor of marine transportation at SUNY Maritime.

“They’re made of wood, mostly,” Johansson said. “Perhaps they’re just sitting there so long that they’re rotting. If you lean on it, that is normal wear and tear, and over time it has to be redone. Normal wear and tear is not the mariner’s responsibility. It’s the responsibility of the (bridge) owner.”

As a result of discussions at the Towing Forum in October 2007, the Coast Guard’s New York sector added a bridge outage reporting form to its Homeport Web site. Johansson said it’s important for mariners to start using that online form, so the Coast Guard has a record of a worn-out fender before some vessel gets blamed for knocking it down.

The Coast Guard also added a bridge contact list to give mariners a quick way to find phone numbers for bridge supervisors, tenders and dispatchers.

The Coast Guard can also serve as an intermediary where disagreements arise on drawbridge access.

“In areas where bridge openings are an issue, that can be a real problem for the mariner: Were you going to get the opening that you asked for?” Clinton said.

When disputes do occur, Clinton said bridge owners and mariners generally do cooperate well to resolve the problem.

Kinnier said one example of a good dialogue is the current discussion over marine transits at the recently rehabilitated Arthur Kill Vertical Lift Railroad Bridge, which connects Staten Island’s New York Container Terminal to New Jersey. Kinnier said it’s important that the bridge “not hold up traffic there, because you don’t have a safe haven.”

He said the bridge owner and other parties are cooperating to find the best solution.

By contrast, mariners must cope with persistent delays at the Lehigh Valley Drawbridge across Newark Bay.

“On numerous occasions we’ve had to wait for extended periods of time for the bridge to go up,” Kinnier said.

Of the 2,000 bridges over navigable waters in Kassof’s district, 200 are movable. He said his office works with train dispatchers and drawbridge tenders to ensure that they realize the needs of the waterborne trade.

By Professional Mariner Staff