Adequate Icebreakers, Efficient System-Wide Winter Navigation and Realistic Performance Measurements

GOAL: Procure a second heavy Great Lakes icebreaker, repower the 140-foot icebreaking tugs, and create realistic icebreaking performance metrics.

BACKGROUND: In 2019, delays and canceled sailings resulted in the loss of over 5,000 jobs and $1 billion to the U.S. economy. Heavy ice conditions have plagued the Great Lakes over the past decade and continue to exceed the capability of the U.S. Coast Guard’s (USCG’s) 225-foot multi-mission buoy tenders, its aging fleet of 140-foot icebreaking tugs, and its single heavy icebreaker, the MACKINAW. Congress has so far appropriated $10 million for the design of a new heavy icebreaker. The Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2019, passed in the House and awaiting passage in the Senate, states that a new icebreaking asset “as capable as the MACKINAW is needed on the Great Lakes and the Coast Guard should acquire this icebreaker as soon as possible” and authorizes the USCG to enter into a contract to procure it.

In 2014, USCG initiated a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) for the 140-foot icebreaking tugs. Unfortunately, USCG decided to not replace their 40-year old power plant. In 2019, two of the tugs were unavailable during the ice season due to catastrophic engine casualties. The tugs are essential and serve a vital role keeping restricted navigation channels open during ice season. However, these tugs are not capable of breaking thick lake ice effectively. The 225-foot buoy tenders, while helpful, are not icebreakers and have limited capability.

Only construction of a twin to the MACKINAW will ensure Great Lakes shipping can continue during the ice season. During the winter of 2019, several U.S.-flag lakers suffered significant ice damage to their hulls. Commercial carriers did not sail for more than a week after the season opened rather than risk further ice damage and costly delays due to ice-choked waterways.

USCG’s performance measure of “success” during the ice season fails to accurately measure their order to “keep open to navigation by means of ice-breaking operations … channels and harbors.” The measurement in use only evaluates select waterways based upon a tiered prioritization and does not treat the Great Lakes as a system, rather a disjointed series of various rivers, federal waterways, and restricted passages. This measurement does not accurately illustrate whether or not there is adequate icebreaking on the Great Lakes as a whole and confuses policy makers who desire to see effective movement of Great Lakes maritime commerce and a new heavy icebreaker.

ACTION: Full funding must be provided for a second heavy Great Lakes icebreaker. The USCG must repower the 140-foot icebreaking tugs, preferably at shipyards in the Great Lakes. The USCG needs to work with industry and other stakeholders to revise their icebreaking performance metrics to reflect the reality of adequate icebreaking needs on the Great Lakes.