WJ Editorial

Is CG Slow-Walking Inland Fleet’s Recapitalization?

Last year, the Coast Guard faced the prospect of a disastrous $1.3 billion cut to its already shrunken budget, due to misconceptions by President Trump and his team about its importance. Thankfully, a massive and ultimately successful pubic campaign in Congress (and the media) resulted in increased funding that is enabling it to recapitalize its offshore fleet—including its No. 1 priority, a new icebreaker.

In his published 2019 budget overview, outgoing Commandant Paul Zukunft was able to celebrate new offshore vessels: “The FY 2019 budget provides funding for construction of the second Offshore Patrol Cutter and long lead time material for the third.” 

Meanwhile, what about the Coast Guard’s aging inland fleet?

During the Inland Marine Expo in May, several attendees were taken on a tour of the Coast Guard cutter Cheyenne, which maintains floating and shore-based aids to navigation (ATON) on the Upper Mississippi from Chester to Alton, Ill., about a 100-mile stretch. The Cheyenne, built in 1966, along with its barge and 16-person crew under Boatswain’s Chief Master Chief Petty Officer Mike Live, is part of the inland buoy-tender fleet, which the Coast Guard calls “perhaps the most unknown and unrecognized part of the Coast Guard fleet.”

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In May 2017, Zukunft testified before Congress that the 35-vessel fleet of inland construction tenders, which he said are “vital to the safety, security and efficiency of the nation’s waterways,” need to be recapitalized. This inland fleet has been “long overlooked,” and all its vessels are operating past their intended service life, he said.

On June 12, the Coast Guard released a “request for information” (RFI) to gather additional information about “potential solutions for the waterways commerce cutter acquisitions program.” This followed another RFI on the same topic it issued in February.  The Coast Guard has been working closely with The American Waterways Operators’ Mid-America Quality Steering Committee on this issue and others.

In his 2019 budget overview, Zukunft said the Coast Guard “continues efforts to recapitalize our service’s aging inland waterways and Western Rivers tender fleet by providing funds to conduct an alternatives analysis.”

Alternatives? What are the alternatives to replacing the fleet? The Coast Guard has reassured the towing industry that it does not want to completely replace physical ATON with electronic ones, but is looking instead for input on how best to prioritize ATON-servicing, admittedly a difficult and labor-intensive process that can be hazardous. On some issues there is agreement; for instance, that the old board mile markers that are difficult to maintain may no longer be necessary.

Those reassurances were necessary in the face of budget numbers that long told a different story. During a 17-year period after 9/11, the Coast Guard’s overall budget increased 73 percent, while funding for aids to navigation within that budget decreased 32 percent, as other matters including homeland security took precedence.

We are glad the Coast Guard is listening to industry as it considers ways to recapitalize its inland fleet. And we hope that the recapitalization is realized. Our inland waterways that generate $4.5 trillion worth of commerce annually deserve better.