The Coast Guard has refused to issue New Orleans' new 105', 150-passenger, high-speed, aluminum catamaran ferries a Certificate of Inspection (COI) after a recent examination. Without the COIs, the ferries cannot operate.

Members of Coast Guard Sector New Orleans and officials from Transdev North America and the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) held a meeting last Wednesday to discuss necessary measures needed to bring the two RTA ferries into compliance with federal standards. (Transdev provides management of the city of New Orleans’ transportation modes through the RTA.)

"We feel we had a very productive meeting today and are on track to getting all parties working together to ensure the ferries are able to obtain their COI," Capt. Kristi Luttrell, Sector New Orleans commander and the officer-in-charge of marine inspection (OCMI), said in a statement released by the agency on Friday.

The new ferries, RTA 1 and RTA 2, were delivered by boatbuilder Metal Shark in 2018. The new ferries were supposed to replace the decades-old ferries currently operated in New Orleans and usher in new standards of comfort, safety, reliability, and efficiency. However, the ferries have yet to pass inspections needed to join the ferry routes that cross the Mississippi River.

A currently operating New Orleans ferry passes behind a tow on the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Ken Hocke photo

After inspection by Coast Guard Sector New Orleans in July, it was determined that the ferries did not yet meet the requirements for an initial COI in accordance with the Code of Federal Regulations. “On July 29 a Coast Guard inspection team went aboard, immediately noticed multiple problems, and had to take a step back,” a Coast Guard spokesperson told WorkBoat on Monday. “It was obvious the boat was not ready for inspection. In fact, the owner and operator weren’t even talking to each other."

Josh Stickles, Metal Shark’s vice president, marketing, said the wording of the Coast Guard’s recent statement and inaccurate media reports have caused some general confusion relating to the new ferries.

“Both RTA1 and RTA2 were inspected by the Coast Guard in Morgan City (La.) prior to delivery. Both vessels passed the inspections without incident and were issued Certificates of Inspection,” he said. “In addition to being accepted by the RTA with Metal Shark’s portion of the Coast Guard inspection complete, both vessels recently passed inspection by an independent marine surveyor jointly retained by Metal Shark and the RTA. The certifications issued in connection with those inspections are matters of public record.”

The Coast Guard spokesperson said the initial COIs the ferries received were only good for transporting the boats from Morgan City to New Orleans without passengers. “It is confusing, but there has to be another COI that says you can operate on your intended route and be able to operate on the river and as a passenger vessel,” the spokesperson said.

The first of the two new ferries was completed and delivered to New Orleans in July 2018. The second vessel was delivered in the fall of last year. The Coast Guard did not go into detail as to why the ferries failed inspection.

The Subchapter T vessels were designed by BMT and built to meet the specific requirements of the RTA. The ferries are powered by twin 715-hp Caterpillar C-18 Tier 3 diesel engines and feature a proven, low wake/low wash, high efficiency hull design for reduced environmental impact.

"RTA, and its operator, the French for-profit conglomerate Transdev, are the parties responsible for obtaining the required Certificates of Inspection “In Zone” for operation in New Orleans. These inspections focus on things like safety procedures and drills to demonstrate crew competence,” said Stickles. “To be clear, obtaining the new-to-zone COI is the operator’s responsibility, not the shipbuilder’s. This is routine procedure that typically occurs without incident, especially considering that the vessels themselves have already passed their inspections. However, for whatever reason, RTA and Transdev have been unable to pass a Coast Guard inspection. We are confident that a capable operator would have long since fulfilled their responsibility by obtaining their Certificates of Inspection and would have put these vessels into service many months ago.”

In May 2019, RTA hired Alex Wiggins as its new CEO and reworked its management philosophy, reducing Transdev's responsibilities, according to published reports. “We have recently had a positive and productive meeting with one member of the RTA's new management team, Alex Wiggins, the RTA’s recently hired CEO,” said Stickles. “Metal Shark is optimistic that under Mr. Wiggins’s new leadership, the RTA will finally take the proper action to ensure that their ferries are placed into service promptly.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, the Coast Guard discussed ways to ensure the vessels will be ready for inspection and able to receive their COIs, which will certify their compliance with federal law and enable them to safely carry passengers and operate on the river.

WorkBoat also reached out to RTA and Transdev for comments.

Ken Hocke has been the senior editor of WorkBoat since 1999. He was the associate editor of WorkBoat from 1997 to 1999. Prior to that, he was the editor of the Daily Shipping Guide, a transportation daily in New Orleans. He has written for other publications including The Times-Picayune. He graduated from Louisiana State University with an arts and sciences degree, with a concentration in English, in 1978.