Today, U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Todd Young, R-Ind., and Gary Peters, D-Mich., reintroduced the Great Lakes Winter Commerce Act, bipartisan legislation that will codify the Coast Guard’s icebreaking mission on the Great Lakes and increase the icebreaking capacity of the Great Lakes fleet.

Icebreaking is critical for commerce in the Great Lakes, and increasing icebreaking capacity will help businesses and workers that rely on the maritime industry to transport goods to market and grow the regional economy.

“Inadequate icebreaking capacity in the Great Lakes is costing us thousands of American jobs and millions in business revenue. We must boost our icebreaking capacity in the Great Lakes to keep our maritime commerce moving,” said Sen. Baldwin. “I’m proud to partner with senators Young and Peters on this bipartisan effort that will move our region closer to getting the sufficient icebreaking resources needed to support our maritime industry, mitigate devastating climate-related events and protect our Great Lakes for generations to come. I will keep working with my colleagues to get this job done for Wisconsin businesses and workers.”

“Hoosier businesses and workers rely on the Great Lakes to transport goods and services, but commerce can be impeded without icebreaking to clear the pathway during cold weather months,” said Sen. Young. “Roughly 28% of our nation’s annual economic output comes from the Great Lakes region, and the pandemic has only emphasized the area’s importance to our nation’s economy. Our legislation will support icebreaking missions to expand capacity to ship goods, create jobs, and strengthen the economy in Indiana and other Great Lake states.”

“Icebreaking in the Great Lakes is critical not just for Michigan’s economy, but for our entire country. As we have seen this winter, the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has made the importance of icebreaking more vital than ever to our small business community,” said Sen. Peters.  

Icebreaking capacity in the Great Lakes supports more than 90 million tons of cargo annually. A study commissioned by the Lake Carriers’ Association found that during the 2018-2019 ice season, businesses that depend upon the Great Lakes maritime industry lost over $1 billion in revenues because of delays caused by inadequate icebreaking. These economic losses resulted in the loss of over 5,000 jobs throughout the Great Lakes Region.

The bipartisan bill would update the outdated Coast Guard’s (USCG) Great Lakes icebreaking mission and increase the icebreaking capacity of the Great Lakes fleet. Specifically, the legislation:

  1. Codifies into law the USCG’s icebreaking mission in the Great Lakes. Requires the USCG to break ice in the Great Lakes in accordance with the reasonable demands of commerce set forth in the bill. The standards derive from a 1997 Coast Guard study outlining icebreaking requirements on the Great Lakes. They are written to allow the USCG to size its icebreaker fleet to be capable of handling the vast majority of ice seasons while limiting excess capacity. The bill includes a one-time report on the operating costs associated with this new performance standard.
  2. Requires USCG to report to Congress on the icebreaking season. Requires an annual report of USCG activities during the previous winter’s icebreaking activities.
  3. Requires USCG to coordinate with industry for icebreaking operations.
  4. Defines “reasonable demands of commerce.” “The safe movement of commercial vessels transiting ice-covered waterways in the Great Lakes, regardless of type of cargo, at a speed consistent with the design capability of Coast Guard icebreakers operating in the Great Lakes.”
  1. Authorizes $350 million for the construction of a new Great Lakes icebreaker and authorizes the USCG to expedite its procurement.

"This historic bill will codify into law a long time Coast Guard mission that protects national and economic security," said Jim Weakley, president of the Lake Carriers’ Association. "It provides Congressional direction and performance metrics. Currently, the Coast Guard interprets the 'reasonable demands of commerce' as meaning that an ice covered waterway is open until a second vessel is stuck in the ice for more than 24 hours as a result of another vessel’s inability to move. They only report to Congress ice restrictions in four connecting channels for the entire Great Lakes."

“For too many years, inadequate icebreaking has unnecessarily risked the lives of sailors. Ships have been forced into collisions and groundings or have been sliced open by ice because no Coast Guard icebreakers were available to assist. The bill respects those risking their lives to keep our economy moving during the winter,” said John Clemons, president of the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force and American Maritime Officers Union National vice president, Great Lakes.

“This has been a priority for the Great Lake Maritime Task Force for a decade and we welcome the bill’s introduction. Just like we plow our roads, we need to keep traffic moving on our maritime highways,” said Richard Hammer, vice president of the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force and general manager of Donjon Shipbuilding.

Companies and organizations that have endorsed the Great Lakes Winter Commerce Act include the Lake Carriers’ Association (Ohio), Great Lakes Maritime Task Force, American Great Lakes Ports Association, Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding (Wisconsin), Fraser Shipyards (Wisconsin), Grand River Navigation (Michigan), Great Lakes Fleet (Minnesota), Great Lakes Shipyard (Ohio), Great Lakes Towing Company, Inland Lakes Management (Michigan), Interlake Steamship (Ohio), Lake Michigan Carferry Service (Michigan, Wisconsin), Seafarers International Union, the American Waterways Operators (AWO), and VanEnkevort Tug & Barge Inc. (Michigan, Ohio).