MR. WELCH: Thanks, Jan, and members of the Access Board. I'm Ed Welch. I'm legislative director for the Passenger Vessel Association. When we first started working with the Access Board and the advisory committee, we came in and said we're the PVA, and people on the Access Board said you don't look like it. We realized quickly it was sort of like an old Bob Newhart show. There's my brother, Bob, and my other brother, Bob. But we're the other PVA, as opposed to the Paralyzed Veterans Association.
We're the national trade association representing U.S. flag, U.S. Coast Guard inspected passenger vessel fleet, and our owners and operators run dinner cruise vessels, sightseeing excursion vessels, passenger and vehicular ferries like the one described by Robin Trinko-Russell, private charter vessels, whale watching, marine mammal vessels, windjammers, gaming vessels, amphibious vessels, small overnight coastal cruise vessels. If you have a U.S. flag vessel and you're inspected by the Coast Guard, you are likely a member of the Passenger Vessel Association.
Our members can be small family businesses with a single boat. They can be companies with vessels in several different cities, private companies. They can be governmental agencies that operate ferries, like the Washington State ferries or the Maine State ferries.
We have 431 vessel operating companies. They operate several thousand vessels. We have also associate members that design and build vessels. And, in fact, our member of the advisory committee was John Waterhouse from Seattle, Washington, who was a marine designer of our types of vessels.
We are committed to providing access to our disabled customers, not only because it's the law but it's good business for us. Occasionally, we get frustrated because we hear folks from the Access Board or elsewhere saying that this rulemaking is the accessibility rule for cruise ships.
And let me assure you, I think as you've probably already picked up, that the vast number of vessels that are going to be affected by this rulemaking and these standards are not oceangoing cruise ships like the ones represented by the International Council of Cruise Lines.
They certainly are potentially affected, and there are some serious issues there, but the vast number of vessels are going to be either U.S. Coast Guard inspected vessels or vessels like Bob Zales was describing, the hundreds and thousands of little small charter vessels that aren't even inspected by the U.S. Coast Guard.
In fact, depending on the outcome of this Supreme Court case that's going to be heard in February, these standards may not even apply to oceangoing cruise ships because virtually all large oceangoing cruise ships that come to the United States are foreign flag vessels, and if the Supreme Court says that the ADA doesn't apply to them, this standard becomes somewhat irrelevant to them from a legal standpoint, not perhaps from a design standpoint, from a legal standpoint.
We want -- the Passenger Vessel Association, we are here seeking your help in getting practical, achievable, and definite guidance for our new vessels. We've always supported the goals and objectives of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Our association has sought to advise our members of what their legal responsibilities are and how to comply with it. Some of our vessels, as I described, are governmental agencies providing public transportation. Others are public accommodations under the ADA.
Yet, while we've had legal responsibilities under the ADA for 15 years, even now, 15 years after the enactment, the federal government has provided us no guidance on how to construct and design our vessels, no guidance that was tailored for vessels. And we would say that we need that type of guidance. There is no worse scenario for a business operator or a transportation provider than being subject to a law or a regulation and having no precedent or no definition or no guidance to which we can refer. It's confounding to us and to our customers with disabilities that the only existing guidance was developed for an environment that doesn't present the challenges posed by operating on water.
Several of our members are present today from all parts of the country, and perhaps they could raise their hands, the PVA people? This is continuing evidence that we are committed to working with you to develop appropriate and reasonable accessibility guidelines.
Some of them will testify, and they want you to help understand the difficulties that they see in their operations and adopting the proposed guidance, as well as some of the difficulties in the proposal of extending the guidance for large vessels to smaller vessels.
I'd like to address the work of the Passenger Vessel Access Advisory Committee. And we at Passenger Vessel Association very much appreciate the opportunity to be a part of that, and we think that their work product was an excellent summation of about three years' worth of work by a very diverse group of people, both from the transportation sector and the disabled community. Their 21 members of that advisory committee represented all segments of the passenger vessel industry and the disability community.
We had several members of PVA that were members of that advisory committee, including a ferry operator run by the government, an overnight cruise vessel operator, and a dinner boat operator.
The committee worked over two years; they had nine formal meetings that ran an average of three days each. It had intercessional work by e-mail and other means. It produced a greater understanding on our part of the needs of the disabled community. It provided a greater understanding among the members of that advisory committee from the disabled community of some of the particular challenges faced by the marine industry. It resulted in extensive recommendations to you. Those recommendations were signed off on by all the members of the advisory committee.
Therefore, we urge you not to depart without great deliberation from the recommendations of the advisory committee. We see that, in some places, your drafting committee has chosen to go in a different direction. To us, the reasons or the rationale for departing from the advisory committee's work after all those many months of work are not particularly convincing.
We recommend that, as a general principle, absent a really compelling reason, that your drafting committee defer to the work of the advisory committee and their recommendations. We are going to, in our written submissions, submit to you, point out some of the instances of departure from the work of the advisory committee, but let me give you one example. There's a question of vertical clearance on a deck. The advisory committee recommended 74 inches. Your drafting committee talks about 80 inches. The difficulty is that added vertical clearance adds to the total weight of a vessel. High weight in vessels is a critical factor in determining the vessel's safe design and its stability. The more weight, particularly if it's higher, the less stable the vessel.
So that's an example where we think your drafting committee is proposing a land-based standard that, after a great deal of deliberation by the advisory committee, the advisory committee felt like a better standard because of the special challenges of the marine environment existed that would still provide accessibility for all customers.
Let me address your Federal Register proposal, and we will submit detailed, written submissions about it. There's several things about this Federal Register proposal that we'd like to highlight favorably.
You implicitly suggest that there is likely to be differing treatment of larger and smaller vessels. This is crucial. I think you've seen that the challenges of designing accessibility into a new vessel are going to be not the same and will, in fact, be considerably greater as the vessel gets smaller.
You've chosen a break point between larger and smaller vessels of 151 passengers or more for vessels without overnight accommodations and 49 for vessels with accommodations. This was a break point that the advisory committee chose, and we think that that was wise. This break point is commonly used by the Coast Guard as far as other vessel construction regulations for safety and security. So it is something that marine designers and marine operators are familiar with.
We tremble about the fact of introducing break points in vessel construction and design that are not break points that are used already by designers. That will add a great deal of complexity and expense and confusion, and, I suspect, noncompliance.
You propose, I think, to let the regulatory process proceed faster for larger vessels, and then have it be followed by the regulatory process for smaller vessels, and we concur with that because we see that there are perhaps some more challenges and unanswered questions for the smaller vessels than there are for the larger vessels.
You endorse, we think, the idea that is common with other ADA regulations that these standards will have prospective application for new construction primarily and only to existing vessels when and to the extent they undergo alterations. We agree with that. That follows the recommendation of the advisory committee. It follows the general principles of enforcement in other aspects of daily life.
We will need to have very clear direction as to what does and what does not constitute an alteration. We need to make sure that people with existing vessels will understand when they have a responsibility and when they do not. And so we want to work with you to pin down exactly when that alteration criteria is reached.
And this recognizes that there are great difficulties inherent in imposing new types of construction guidelines on an already built vessel and that it is easier, although it is not necessarily always easy, to incorporate your guidelines initially at the design stage of a new vessel than it is to put them into an existing vessel.
Let me finally say that you recognize that there are possibly going to be conflicts between the goal of accessibility and the Coast Guard goal of safety. And I have to say that, on the water, safety trumps everything; safety is paramount.
There are many aspects of vessel design and construction right now that we would do differently but for the safety regulations. And the safety regulations are not established by us. They're established by the Congress in statute. They're established by the Coast Guard in regulation. They're established by international treaty. We have absolutely no control over that. We have to adhere to them.
And there may be instances, and you need to be aware of it, where the Coast Guard regulations or the laws or the international treaties are just going to come flat up against what we would like to do to promote accessibility. And, in those situations, we're probably going to have to do the best we can and still comply with the safety rules, but you need to be aware that those types of situations are likely to come up.
MS. [JAN] TUCK [BOARD CHAIR]: Okay. Can you wrap up?
MR. WELCH: Yes, I will. We finally would say that we do endorse the idea for an extension of the comment period. It's sort of ironic to us that it's taken the Access Board itself 15 years to get to this point and propose something, and you have suggested that perhaps everybody can comment in four months. We think at least another 90 days is warranted.
We also endorse your suggestion of another public hearing elsewhere in the country. In fact, we would suggest two. Our members are scattered all around the country, and they would like to participate, but traveling here.
And, finally, we're going to give you some ideas about how to conduct your regulatory assessment. I would comment that it appears to us that your guesses as to how many vessels are built per year are short.
So we appreciate this opportunity to participate. We will continue to work as we did with the advisory committee with you on this. We will submit very detailed written comments. And we hope that you will consider our request for a little bit more time for review and comment and more public hearings. And thank you very much.
MS. TUCK: Ed, thank you. So you were asking for at least 90 days on the extension and then two more hearings. Did you have a place? I know your members are everywhere.
MR. WELCH: We've given -- we've given a couple --
MS. TUCK: Okay.
MR. WELCH: -- we've had some informal conversations with your staff, and, you know, we think certainly a West Coast hearing would be appropriate and perhaps somewhere in the middle part of the country. And, I mean, ideally, we would like that, however many hearings you have, that there be a period of time after the last hearing before the written comments have to be filed.
MS. TUCK: Terrific.
Does anybody have any other specific questions?
Thank you very much.
MALE VOICE: Pam had a question.
MS. [PAMELA] DORWARTH [BOARD MEMBER]: Is any of your construction out of the country, companies out of the country and then brought here and put together?
MR. WELCH: Virtually, no. If you are running -- carrying passengers in the United States in transportation, and that's what our people do --
MS. DORWARTH: Right.
MR. WELCH: -- federal law requires you to use a U.S. built vessel. Now, if you're in international service, like international cruise ships or perhaps some of our ferries that run between Seattle and Canada, you can build your vessel anywhere in the world. So you're going to find -- and recreational boats and small charter boats, I think, can be built --
MS. DORWARTH: Anywhere.
MR. WELCH: -- anywhere.
So you're going to find different segments of the industry have different legal requirements and different practices about who designs their boats and where they're built.
MS. DORWARTH: It's different parts of your boat. I guess the vessel construct can be constructed outside of the country?
MR. WELCH: No. Our segment, no.
MS. DORWARTH: No.
MR. WELCH: With very limited exceptions. Maybe a handful of our vessels are built outside of the country.
MS. DORWARTH: I don't mean the whole vessel. I meant just like parts of it, parts of it.
MR. WELCH: With our segment of the industry, that's not practical.
MS. DORWARTH: Okay.
MR. WELCH: So there are, for example, I would guess two to three dozen shipyards, relatively small shipyards, scattered around the coastal and Great Lakes areas of this country, that build ferries and dinner cruise boats and whale watching boats. And we could identify those shipyards for you for the record.
MS. TUCK: Great. Thank you, Ed.
MR. WELCH: Thank you.