Filed Under:  Business

Delta Queen faces U.S. House fight to return to service

11th December 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Designated one of the eleven most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Delta Queen sits rotting on a dock in Houma, La.

This despite the fact that its owners have pledged to invest more than $10 million in repairs and upgrades as soon as both houses of Congress act.

But a push in Congress seeking to restore this last overnight, passenger steamboat to service faces strong cross currents. A lobbying campaign by the U.S. Coast Guard and one of the 90-year-old Delta Queen’s potential competitors, American Cruise Line owner Charles Robertson, has kept the “exemption” legislation moribund for the last three years.Delta-Queen-Riverboat-12111

Delta Queen was built in 1927 to make the San Francisco to Sacramento overnight run, relocating to the Mississippi River in the 1940s. If granted a Coast Guard Certificate of Inspection (COI) and allowed to return to travel, Delta Queen would become only the seventh overnight passenger riverboat operating on the Mississippi. Currently, most of the others in operation — those owned by ACL and its principal competitor American Queen — are reportedly nearly sold out for the next 12 months, with booking availability already narrowing for the following year. As a point of contrast, there are currently 162 Riverboats operating on the Danube River in Europe.

But an exemption for Delta Queen to operate is hung up in Congress.

An unofficial alliance of interests has prevented the enabling legislation from securing a key floor vote in both chambers, though both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives each have passed a waiver for the Delta Queen in the last four years.

At issue is the 1966 Safety at Sea (SOLAS) Act. This law prohibits boats made of mostly combustible material from taking overnight passenger trips. SOLAS makes no distinction for river vessels sailing no more than 100 yards from shoreline, with outward-facing cabins, allowing for quick evacuation if needed. But defenders of the vessel cited its 80-year “spotless” safety record and its historic value. The Delta Queen received congressional exemptions for decades to continue operating.

The last exemption ran out on October 31, 2008, and the U.S. Coast Guard opposed the waiver’s reauthorization by Congress.

This despite the fact that a USCG report the previous July 18 found the steamboat’s safety standards within highly acceptable parameters. Nevertheless, the same study acknowledged on its second page, “[T]he Coast Guard has consistently opposed legislation to prolong the service life of the Delta Queen.”

Resistance from USCG leadership has only strengthened as the years have passed, despite broad congressional support for the waiver. In his May 3, 2017 testimony before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Rear Admiral Paul F. Thomas framed the Coast Guard’s opposition in general terms of fire safety, saying, “I am aware of some work in Congress that would exempt Delta Queen from some provisions, specifically structural fire protection provisions. The Coast Guard is not taking any action independent of providing advice on that particular legislation. However, we do not support an exemption for any vessel that would increase the potential of fire at sea.”

Left unmentioned by the Admiral is that legislation in question — the House’s HR 1248 and the Senate’s S 89 — would restore the Delta Queen’s exemptions in exchange for a requirement in that ten percent of the boat would receive a “structural alteration” of its combustible materials each year.

That was enough for the Senate to pass their bill 85-12 in April, with bipartisan co-sponsorship. The House, though, has yet to act, despite passing a similar piece of legislation to exempt the Delta Queen from SOLAS in 2014. One of the lead opponents, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., maintains, “Thousands of people have lost their lives in boats that were not safe, in boats that were made of wood. Simply put, this is a bad piece of legislation.”

His fellow Californian, David Dewey, countered, “[T]hat’s what the opponents would like you to believe! Yes, she has a wooden superstructure and a modern sprinkler system in every space, as well as a very sophisticated heat rise and smoke detection system. Every passenger cabin has immediate access to an outside deck. She is five minutes from beaching herself on the shore — which is the way steamboats ‘dock’ so she’s designed to do this. With her large stage (large enough to drive a car on) — think of ‘gangplank’ on other boats, the passengers can walk right off and not even get their feet wet. She is also taller than the rivers she runs in. The concerns for safety for a ship at sea do not apply to a riverboat such as the Delta Queen. But because the rivers are considered ‘navigable waters’ the sea regulations apply. This was and is a flaw in the law, which is why, under normal circumstances, Congress passed the exemptions from 1966 to 2008. In 2008 the head of the transportation committee refused to let the bill pass out of “his” committee, so Congress was denied a chance to vote on it. That man is no longer in Congress!”

Cornel Martin aims to make sure the exemption does pass through Congress. He served as governmental affairs director of the former Delta Queen Steamship Company in New Orleans, shepherding the exemptions for the Delta Queen through the House and Senate in the 1990s. He noted that Delta Queen’s riverboat business was always immensely profitable, and none more than its classic namesake. Money aside, though, this classic steamboat remains Martin’s passion, and he has personally spent the better part of this decade raising money to purchase the Delta Queen and put it back into service.

“It’s been part of the Mississippi River history since the mid-‘40s, and gives folks an opportunity to kind of step back in time and see America the way many of our ancestors saw her, from the river,” said Martin, now president and CEO of the revived Delta Queen Steamboat Company, LLC.

The man who negotiated to keep the boat sailing in decades past remains confident that the U.S. House will vote to let it sail again.

This article originally published in the December 11, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Readers Comments (0)

You must be logged in to post a comment.