The Marietta RegisterJune 25, 2008
The nearly 82-year-old Delta Queen still makes trips on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers for its overnight passengers, as most Marietta residents know, splashing along between river towns with its history and commerce in tow. That tradition will end in about four months unless Congress changes course and decides to let America’s last steam-powered Sternwheeler for overnight passengers continue its runs up and down the rivers.
A growing number of people are calling on Congress, including some of its own members, to do just that – so far to no avail.
The Delta Queen’s political troubles stem from the Safety of Life at Seas Act Congress passed in 1966, which bans wooden boats from carrying more than 50 overnight passengers. The steel-hulled Delta Queen was ensnared, having a largely wooden superstructure and 174-passenger capacity. Ever since, the Delta Queen has been allowed to operate as it does only with congressional exemption from SOLAS.
Congress has granted the Delta Queen nine straight exemptions in the last 40 years, but the steamboat’s current exemption expires Nov. 1, when it would be forced to dock as a floating hotel or restaurant or be limited to short day trips for passengers.
With public outcry spreading along major waterways of the Midwest and beyond, Congress has been split almost entirely along party lines, with most House Democrats opposed, along with the U.S. Coast Guard (as it has been for decades), to any more SOLAS exemptions for the Delta Queen.
The boat’s not quite sunk yet, however. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH1) introduced H.R. 3852 last fall. It would grant the Delta Queen another 10-year exemption and now has 31 cosponsors, including Marietta’s own Sixth District Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-OH6).
Todd Lindgren, a spokesman for Rep. Chabot, said the congressman from Cincinnati – the Delta Queen’s former home port of 37 years – will continue to push as hard as he can for the exemption. “We argue that it’s very safe, and think it would be very unfortunate if the Delta Queen is docked due to politics,” he said on Friday.
Unfortunately for Delta Queen supporters, H.R. 3852 went straight to the House Committee on Transportation, chaired by Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN8), who has strongly opposed the exemption and refused to bring the resolution to the floor for a vote, citing concerns about the Delta Queen’s risk of fire.
Many of Oberstar’s critics, and there are many among a Save the Delta Queen campaign, think he is hiding behind hyped up safety concerns due to pressure from union supporters, since he voted for an exemption in 2006 shortly before the Delta Queen (a union boat for more than 30 years) was purchased by Seattle-based Majestic America Line and made a non-union boat. It’s an allegation that both Oberstar and the Seafarers International Union, one of his campaign supporters, have denied.
In April 2008, Rep. Chabot took H.R. 3852 to the House Rules Committee, trying to force the resolution to the floor as a regular amendment to a larger Coast Guard reauthorization bill. The House Rules Committee voted it down 9-4 along party lines, with Democrats in the majority. Later that week Chabot made a motion to recommit, a procedural minority move to try and force Oberstar and his House Committee on Transportation to add the Delta Queen exemption to the Coast Guard bill. A roll call vote was held and the motion failed 208-195, with just 22 Democrats voting for the motion, including Rep. Charlie Wilson, and just 10 Republicans voting against it.
Read the full story by Tom Lotshaw at The Marietta Register