In Congress, a bipartisan effort is coming together to help boost the Coast Guard’s aged and underfunded ship repair infrastructure. On June 17, Senator Chris Van Hollen and Senator Ben Cardin, both from the staunchly Democratic state of Maryland, joined forces, introducing the “Service to the Fleet Act.” The Act directs $632 million in funding to the Coast Guard’s often-overlooked Baltimore-based shipyard, a maintenance and logistics support facility known as the Coast Guard Yard. The two Senators have kept the pressure on, and, seeking additional support, the two wrote the Senate Commerce Committee on June 23, advocating for the new funding.
This week, the joint appeal from Maryland’s two Senators was welcomed in a statement by Mississippi’s powerful Republican Senator, Roger Wicker, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “I strongly support authorizing full funding for the U.S. Coast Guard Yard in the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act,” said the Senator, “It is shocking that the Coast Guard’s only shipyard is in such need of updating that it cannot accommodate repairs on the service’s premier vessel, the National Security Cutter. I welcome the input of Senators Cardin and Van Hollen, and hope other Senators will join us to improve the infrastructure that our forces deserve.”
In a Congress where bipartisanship is hard to find, the emergence of such a powerful bipartisan coalition increases the chances that additional money will finally head to Curtis Bay. After years of underfunding, and multiple failed efforts from Congress to fund facility improvements at the high-performing shipyard, the Coast Guard Yard may well get the cash it needs to support the Nation for the next fifty years.
A Shipyard In Need:
Operated by the Department of Homeland Security and located in Maryland’s 2nd Congressional District, the Coast Guard shipyard is a busy place. According to the proposed legislation, eight ships, on average, are in the yard at any one time.
On the waterfront, ships from the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, jockey for space with Coast Guard vessels, as the shipyard reaches well beyond the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security. The yard also supports Foreign Military Sales, and in a recent visit, as Coast Guard cutters were getting refits, old cutters were being readied for transfer to Ukraine while Taiwanese military equipment got overhauled in nearby workshops.
But the busy yard is built upon a fragile foundation. Most of the yard was built during World War II, and, as the aged facility grudgingly decays, the American Society of Engineers has given the facility an infrastructure grade of D+, well below average for other Coast Guard facilities. Workers there spend more and more time fighting failing infrastructure, eking out a few more years of productivity from ancient buildings, or shoehorning multi-million-dollar technology into World War II-era structures.
Despite the decrepit facilities, the yard does great work with what it has. It consistently completes high quality repair tasks, and, unlike the four publicly-owned Navy yards, the Coast Guard Yard is getting their repair projects done on time and on budget. But the shipyard, stung by a failure to receive any additional money from the nation-wide investment in infrastructure or from earlier Congressional efforts, is hurting and needs a boost, soon.
This Isn’t The First Time:
Given the shipyard’s strong record, Coast Guard Yard funding gets overlooked far too often.
Fourteen months ago, when Congress really started to get excited about supporting America’s maritime ship repair infrastructure, the Coast Guard Yard was left out of the public shipyard-enhancing “Supplying Help to Infrastructure in Ports, Yards, and America’s Repair Docks Act, known as the SHIPYARD Act.
While Senator Wicker quickly addressed this omission, including requests to fund the Coast Guard Yard in several additional pieces of legislation, the Coast Guard Yard still failed to receive much additional infrastructure funding, despite active support from a range of largely Republican members of Congress.
But the Coast Guard Yard wasn’t a “formally” stated priority for the Coast Guard itself. This year, only a single capital improvement project for the shipyard landed on the Coast Guard’s Unfunded Priorities List. The Department of Homeland Security allowed the Coast Guard to only include a request for a mere $56 million, completing just the “upgrades necessary to facilitate the future addition of a floating drydock capable of accommodating current and future” Coast Guard cutters.
The plodding pace of Coast Guard funding requests for the shipyard have real consequences. Just this month, the U.S. Navy just awarded shipbuilder Austal USA a contract for the construction of a single, $128 million medium-sized auxiliary floating dry dock. A coordinated effort between the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense could have easily added a “block buy” option for more dry docks to this contract, potentially reducing the per-unit price. It was a well-timed initiative, and it would have set the Coast Guard Yard to receive a floating dry dock in a few years, just as the Coast Guard’s new big cutters will start needing regular refits.
Recapitalization like this might be pricey, but the constant inability to get this deserving yard’s recapitalization effort funded carries serious costs for the taxpayer.
Admittedly, the Coast Guard Yard has, to some extent, become a victim of its own success. The shipyard has done so well with so little for so long, the yard now has little time left before it collapses into an ineffective facility. Adding to the challenge is that the Coast Guard simply hates to advocate for itself, and it cannot, buried deep in the bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Defense, directly ask Congress for help. But, today, the Coast Guard needs help from Congress. Hopefully, this time, as a bipartisan array of powerful Congressional leaders rally around the $632 million request by Maryland’s Congressional delegation, America’s best public shipyard will finally get the funding it deserves.