WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

Waterways Commerce Cutter Program Advances

As mentioned in last week’s Washington Waves column, the Coast Guard has announced the availability of a Draft Programmatic Preliminary Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for its program of acquiring 30 new Waterways Commerce Cutters. The September 24 Federal Register publication began a public comment period on the PEIS; after collecting comments, the Coast Guard will publish a final PEIS.

The fleet will be built to develop, establish, maintain and operate aids to navigation on federal waterways to promote safety, assist navigation, prevent disasters and collisions, and generally serve the needs of maritime commerce. As we all know, the maintenance of navigation aids is critical to ensuring that waterborne freight can continue to move through all kinds of adverse conditions.

In addition, the vessels provide an emergency capability, enabling the Coast Guard to quickly and effectively respond to accidents, environmental incidents and severe weather events.

The “preferred alternative” identified by the Coast Guard calls for 16 “river buoy class,” 11 “construction class” and three “inland buoy class” vessels. The first vessels would potentially be operational as soon as 2025, with all 30 delivered and operational by 2032.

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The 30 new cutters will replace an existing bouy-tending fleet of 35 vessels, which have an average age of 56 years old. The youngest boats in the current fleet are 30 years old; the oldest two have been at work for 75 and 76 years.

As of 2019, 18 of these vessels served along the Mississippi River, while 13 serve along the Gulf and East coasts. 

Each year, the reasons for rapidly replacing the cutter fleet grow. Their annual maintenance costs are rising rapidly, they break down frequently, and can remain out of operation for periods of 30 to 45 days while being repaired. They have poor living conditions for their crew members, and many were built for single-sex crews and cannot accommodate contemporary requirements to provide for all Coast Guard members. The Coast Guard argues that replacing the aging cutters will be more cost-effective than continuing to operate and maintain them—not to mention that the old vessels were constructed according to long-outdated safety and environmental standards.

We welcome this latest milestone and hope the program can move forward swiftly.