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WASHINGTON — If the U.S. Senate has its way, a 90-year-old steamboat will soon be able to return to the Mississippi River.
Lawmakers voted 85-12 Monday to approve legislation that would exempt the Delta Queen from federal safety regulations that had forced it into retirement.
U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, both Arkansas Republicans, were co-sponsors of S. 89.
Monday, Boozman said the vote was “long overdue.”
“Allowing the iconic Delta Queen to operate again will promote job creation and allow tourists to experience this historic treasure while supporting the economies of communities along the Mississippi River and its tributaries,” he said in a written statement.
Now the legislation heads to the U.S. House of Representatives, which passed similar legislation in 2013 only to see it die in the Senate.
Cornel Martin, the president and chief executive officer of Delta Queen Steamboat Co., said he’s hopeful that the bill will clear both houses of Congress and be signed into law this year by President Donald Trump.
If that happens, the Delta Queen will undergo a multimillion-dollar renovation, Martin added. For now, it’s moored in Houma, La.
“We’re feeling pretty confident,” Martin said. “If we’re able to get the legislation done before the summer or early summer at least, she should [be] cruising again in the spring of 2018.”
The bill that passed Monday would exempt the historic steamship from the Safety at Sea Act.
The law, which passed in 1966, prohibits passenger vessels with rooms for 50 or more people from plying the waters unless those vessels are made of fire-retardant materials. Much of the steamboat, completed in 1927, is made of wood.
For decades, Congress periodically approved exemptions so the Delta Queen could continue carrying passengers along the Mississippi.
The last exemption ran out in 2008. The ship’s boosters, including members of the Delta Grassroots Caucus, have been lobbying for a new exemption ever since.
“We’ve been working on this for many years, so this is a great day for supporters of the Delta Queen,” said caucus director Lee Powell.
Without the exemption, the ship has spent most of its time docked.
For a time, it was based in Chattanooga, Tenn., where it was used as a floating hotel.
Since buying the ship and taking it to Louisiana, Martin has traveled repeatedly to Washington, urging lawmakers to intervene.
“We’ve been working it very hard. … The legislative process is cumbersome. It’s not easy,” Martin said.
The ship has been listed as a National Historic Landmark since 1989.
U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican from Jonesboro whose district borders the Mississippi River, predicts the steamboat will get its exemption this time.
“I have confidence that the House will pass the Delta Queen bill, and we will see her cruising on America’s major waterways once again,” he said in a written statement.
If the Delta Queen exemption becomes law, ticket buyers would have to be informed, in writing, that the ship “does not comply with applicable fire safety standards due primarily to the wooden construction of passenger berthing areas.”
Signs would be posted throughout the vessel warning those on board that it “fails to comply with safety rules and regulations of the U.S. Coast Guard.”
The steamboat would be regularly inspected by Coast Guard officials, and its owner or operator would have to make structural alterations each year to reduce “the combustible fire-load.”
In October, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Delta Queen on its annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The organization had urged people to support the bill.
Nancy Tinker, a senior field officer with the Washington-based nonprofit group, said Monday’s vote is an important step in the battle to save the Delta Queen.
“She’s the last vessel of her type, the last river-going steam-powered vessel to provide overnight passenger service. She represents the last vestige of a uniquely American maritime past,” Tinker said.
Using the Delta Queen as a boutique hotel in Chattanooga was “a very good stopgap measure [but] it was not a use that could be sustained over the long term,” Tinker said.
“She was designed to move, she was designed to plow the American river system, and that’s the best way to assure a sustainable future,” she added.
Metro on 04/04/2017