Mystery Answered: Creating a crisis to justify new training ships

Second in a three four part series.  Part 4 ties it all together and shows how USMMA midshipmen and sea year are casualties in MARAD’s quest to get funding for state school training ships.

In our last post, we promised to reveal our answer to this Legislative Mystery:  Why would a proposed amendment to U.S. law that would protect the state maritime schools if their training ships were incapacitated — and protect SUNY Maritime when it’s training ship is decommissioned in 2019 — be deliberately dropped from the legislation before the Senate voted on it? Today we answer that question; tomorrow we show how MARAD was willing to sacrifice USMMA’s sea year to further its goal of funding the state ships.


The training ships used by the state maritime schools are aging and need to be replaced. SUNY’s ship is the oldest and will age-out in 2019. MARAD, which currently loans federally owned ships to the six state schools, wants Congress to bail out the states and fund new ships at a cost of $300 million each, or $1.8 billion dollars (before cost overruns) for six. MARAD and the state schools have been trying to get the bailout funding for at least three years; but, so far they have not persuaded Congress to fund the bailout. Consequently, MARAD’s unelected bureaucracy has set about to create a crisis so that Congress will be forced to do MARAD’s bidding and fund new training ships for the state schools.

One of the biggest hurdles the states must overcome to persuade Congress to fund these ships (in addition to the basic question, “Why should the federal government fund a major capital investment for six state schools?”) is that few cadets from those schools graduate with a merchant marine obligation and military commitment. Only state school cadets who receive a tuition stipend from the federal government incur such an obligation. MARAD annually budgets for only 75 students (from all six state schools combined) to take the tuition stipend; but, MARAD rarely comes close to filling those 75 slots. In 2010, for example, only 38 graduates took the stipend, of which 4 were SUNY graduates. $300 million for a new SUNY training ship is a lot of money to spend on four students per year.

In contrast, every one of the approximately 225 graduates from USMMA graduate with USCG licenses and a merchant marine obligation/military commitment (and it is a longer obligation/commitment than the one imposed upon the state school students who receive stipends.) Thus, from a cost perspective, it would be far less expensive – and faster – to expand enrollment at the Academy by 75 midshipmen instead of building six new – very expensive – state training ships, the first of which could not be launched before 2021 at the earliest.

Over the past several years, MARAD, the state schools and their lobbyists have grown more creative in their efforts to persuade Congress to fund the school ships. For example the training ships were recast as multi-purpose ships that would be equipped to respond to natural disasters in addition to serving as training platforms. They have produced slick videos to try to move the needle in their favor:

There are two steps to getting funding from Congress — (1) getting the money authorized and (2) getting the money appropriated. After an extensive lobbying campaign this past Spring, the schools were successful in getting legislation introduced in the House of Representatives that would authorize $85 million towards the first ship — a ship designated to go to SUNY Maritime. However, efforts to get an appropriation for the ships keep falling short.

In a time of budget shortfalls and expanding federal deficits, it is difficult to pry money loose from Congress. Even genuine crises like natural disasters and the Flint, Michigan water situation can get stalled in Congress. Without a crisis attached to the funding for the state school ships, the funds are unlikely to be forthcoming.  With the first ship designated for SUNY, the crisis that the state schools are relying upon is the impending decommissioning of SUNY Maritime’s training ship with no replacement in sight.

Legislation to minimize the potential crisis was quietly removed from a Senate bill in June

In less than three years, SUNY Maritime’s training vessel will be decommissioned; and it could be taken out much sooner due to an engine room casualty or failing a USCG inspection. This is a legitimate concern and needs to be addressed. As we explained in this post, the ability of the Secretary of Transportation to create a short-term solution to SUNY’s problem mysteriously disappeared from Senate Bill 2829 between the time the bill was introduced in April 2016 and when it was voted on by the Senate June 2016. The only stakeholders that could care about this amendment are the state maritime schools. But why would they want to remove this language? The state school’s motive provides the answer to the Legislative Mystery:

Because the amendment would have removed much of the urgency about replacing the aging fleet of training ships.

Without the amendment compelling ship sharing, MARAD and the state schools can argue to Congress that the training ship bailout is necessary to address an impending crisis. This is known as manufacturing a crisis to bring about a result.  Contributing to this manufactured crisis, MARAD has reportedly informed SUNY that it will no longer fund maintenance for SUNY’s training ship in FY2017 and future years.

The six state maritime schools are organized and want “their” new ships built with a bailout from Congress. Why should we care? Because, as we will demonstrate tomorrow, MARAD  destruction of USMMA’s sea year serves to escalate the crisis and thereby put more pressure on Congress to fund the state school ships.

The state schools are already  using USMMA — and faux concern about USMMA midshipmen — in their messaging to justify funding the ships. Check out the following Sept. 10, 2013 testimony of Mass Maritime’s president “on behalf of the Consortium of State Maritime Academies” and suggesting that “the federal government pay[] for the hull, machinery and navigational systems” on brand new training ships:

“Without training ships, the academies would be forced to send cadets out on commercial vessels to obtain their required sea time. This would put a significant strain on all the academies, including the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, due to the limited number of available commercial vessel berths.”

But as we will demonstrate in our next post, MARAD is willing to use USMMA’s sea year in a far more destructive fashion to achieve its three-year quest to fund the state school ships before Chip Jaenichen’s tenure as Maritime Administrator runs out on or before Inauguration Day.


Someone pointed out that in the SUNY Maritime video posted above, they slipped an inside joke in against USMMA at 15 seconds into the video:


They’ve got Kings Point acquired as a target.  But I’d suggest shifting the target more to the right — to the Northeast corner of Wiley Hall, second floor.


  1. Politics aside. I have always believed this to be true.

    Sadly, we are now in a civil war with the SMAs as well, as we battle eachother for our futures.

    I fully support the funding needed to recapitalize the SMA school ships, but not at the expense of USMMA.

    Using KP as a political barganing chip is criminal and every midshipman who faces delayed or non-graduation has a right to class action against MARAD for breach of contract.

    • Justin: I hate the fact that it is coming down to a civil war with the state maritime schools. USMMA and the state schools have always enjoyed a friendly rivalry and a hands off approach to each other. I think this civil war is fueled by MARAD. The state schools haven’t said (to my knowledge), “Don’t fund Kings Point and let us have that money for our ships.” But, MARAD has certainly elected to put the state schools ahead of Kings Point and has sacrificed USMMA sea year as part of that.

      Although I support helping the state schools with their training vessel needs, I also think there need to be some substantial changes made to the structure of the state schools if they are going to partake in a $1.8 billion bailout at the expense of all 50 states’ taxpayers. First, all of the students should be required to graduate with licenses and merchant marine/military obligations (many students do not graduate with any license). Second, there should be no distinction between in-state and out-of-state tuition at that state maritime schools. If New Jersey taxpayers are helping keep tuition costs at SUNY Maritime down by underwriting the costs of its training ship, why should they have to pay an extra $40,000 in tuition (over four years) to send a son or daughter to the school?

  2. Numbers don’t add up for for Student Incentive Pay(SIP). $4000 per semester per student for a maximum amount of $32,000 over four years. 70 to 80 new students are awarded SIP annually as per 46 CFR chapter 310 which in turn comes out to about $2.4MIL and the slots for SIP are always used up with requests for more. I’d be leary of using the previous numbers mentioned as an example. Poor data to support statement and hypothesis.

    • Matt: The SIP slots are rarely, if ever, completely taken. We’d love to have more recent data; but after 2010, MARAD stopped including information about it in the state school and USMMA graduation and licensing data that it releases. It stopped releasing it shortly after the USMMAAF began pointing out how few SIP students there were (in response to misleading arguments being made about the cost of a USMMA education compared to the costs of state maritime school education). If you have more recent data (properly sourced), I’ll be happy to post it. But I’ve searched pretty hard without success. And I’m sure if the data was good, MARAD would release it.

  3. MARAD has engineered a proxy war to achieve its’ ulterior motive. It’s now time to drain the swamps. A class action lawsuit against MARAD for breach of contract, may be an inevitable outcome.

  4. This is equivalent of the Commandant of the US Marine Corps shooting every recruit in the foot to get Congress to authorize new boots.

    • Joe, At least the US Marines would get new boots. Our midshipmen won’t get their equivalency… Sea Year on US-flag commercial vessels.

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