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Senate committee passes plan for Delta Queen to again steam on the Mississippi

The Delta Queen locks through Nickajack Lock in Jasper, Tenn. on March 25, 2015.

PAUL WEAVER/U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS

By CHUCK RAASCH | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: June 29, 2016

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The possibility of the historic Delta Queen again cruising the Mississippi River and its tributaries took one step closer to reality when the Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday approved a plan to allow that.

The measure now goes to the Senate for full approval and would need House of Representatives concurrence and a presidential signature to become law.

Introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio and supported by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the bill would reinstate a decades-long exemption to allow the boat to operate from its new home port of Kimmswick, in Jefferson County.

It's not a foregone conclusion. Brown and others previously tried unsuccessfully to exempt the 88-room privately owned steamboat from the 1966 safety laws barring wooden vessels from carrying more than 50 passengers overnight. Opponents of the exemption worry that the Delta Queen and other older wooden boats are potential firetraps that could put passengers at risk.

McCaskill and Blunt said the 1920s-era wooden steamboat would operate cruises out of about 80 ports. According to a joint statement by McCaskill and Blunt, the St. Louis region would get 170 new jobs and more than $36 million in annual economic impact if the plan goes through.

The Delta Queen carried three U.S. Presidents, various other dignitaries, and thousands of other passengers through the tributaries of the Mississippi River for a good part of the last century. It also served as a naval ship during World War II, and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

The Delta Queen was exempted from federal regulations of passenger ships carrying 50 or more passengers overnight on domestic U.S. waters, but that exemption expired in 2008. The new bill would restore the exemption but also require at least 10 percent of the wooden parts of the ship to annually be modified to adhere to federal safety standards.

Blunt called the Delta Queen a “national treasure” and McCaskill said the potential economic benefits would “allow the Delta Queen to serve as far more than an historic landmark and tourist attraction.”

Chuck Raasch: craasch@post-dispatch.com

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