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Transcript: Acting Maritime Administrator Lucinda Lessley 2021 Keel Laying Milestone Event

Friday, December 10, 2021

On behalf of the Maritime Administration, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and the Biden-Harris Administration, I am extraordinarily pleased to join this historic event. 

I also want to thank all of you for joining us today as we witness history happening again in Philadelphia—here in this historic shipyard—as we take a critical step that will help build the future of our Nation’s merchant marine. 

I also want to thank Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon for honoring us with her presence today and for all of her incredible work in the Congress in support of this effort.

I also thank, the State Maritime Academies for helping us define requirements and for having confidence that MARAD could do this.  We are honored to have several of our State Maritime Academy Presidents here with us today, including of course Admiral Mike Alfultis (SUNY Maritime College), as well as Admiral Fran McDonald (Mass Maritime), Admiral Mike Fossum (Texas A&M Maritime), and Admiral Tom Cropper (Cal Maritime).

I also thank Herbert Engineering and the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, which supported early, critical design and business case assessment work to confirm the long-term viability of building these ships; MARAD’s contracted Vessel Construction Manager, TOTE Services, led by President (and retired Coast Guard Captain) Jeff Dixon; and Philly Shipyard, including President Steinar Nerbovik.

Further, I want to acknowledge those in attendance today who have also stood the watch at MARAD, including former Administrators Mark Buzby and Chip Jaenichen, as well as former Deputy Administrator Dick Balzano. They have had the helm for key portions of the voyage that brought us here today, and I thank them for their leadership.  

Let me also say how incredibly proud I am of the MARAD team members who have worked on this program for many years.  They have done all the heavy lifting, managing the details, and creating and following the processes that have enabled the National Security Multi-Mission Vessel, or NSMV, to become reality. Many of them are here today, many of them are watching. Thank you so much.

This joint program team includes our ship operations and schoolship program staff, naval architects, acquisition professions, acquisition attorneys, financial office, and public affairs.  There are too many to mention today by name.  While some have moved on, thankfully, most are still working on NSMV and other critical projects at MARAD, and I commend and recognize each of them for their extraordinary service to our nation on this project.

I also want to welcome Tamekia Flack, who just joined us as our Chief Counsel. We are so honored to have you at our agency. 

The work of everyone whom I have just named, as well as so many others in the Congress and across the Nation, has enabled us to reach this milestone in a shipbuilding program that will—for the first time in our nation’s history—deliver purpose-built ships to train merchant mariners being educated at our state maritime academies. 

These ships will also provide new, multi-mission capabilities to support FEMA’s response and recovery missions—which is another first.  Specifically, these ships will have enhanced medical facilities, helicopter landing pads, roll-on/roll-off ramps, and the ability to berth up to 1,000 people in times of need.  

Also unique is how the U.S. government is using a commercial shipbuilding business model to contract for the construction of the NSMVs. This process is saving American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and several years in development and construction time. 

This new innovative approach taken by MARAD, using the best of commercial ship procurement processes, has delivered a firm fixed price contract and firm fixed delivery schedule at an average program cost of $322 million per ship.

In fact, the traditional Government procurement process normally used to build ships yielded cost estimates of as much as $750 million in average costs per ship—PER SHIP—for the NSMV program.  And if we had used those traditional procurement methods, we wouldn’t be standing here today for this keel laying … this milestone would still be a couple of years away.

Our highly competitive and streamlined process can be used in the future by other Federal entities to procure ships in a way that reduces risk to the U.S. Government and mitigates the potential for cost overruns and unnecessary delays.

Critically, the construction also maximizes the use of U.S. made components to include American steel from Indiana and North Carolina, as well as Wabtec Corporation main engines manufactured in Grove City, PA—which are among the “greenest engines” of this size available.

Critically, the NSMV program is also creating approximately 1,200 high paying, high skilled union manufacturing jobs here at PSI—and supporting the revitalization of this yard. I want to thank all the men and women who are putting their hearts and souls into building these vessels.

In addition to building the NSMV, MARAD has utilized Philly Ship to perform essential repairs and dry dock work on our Ready Reserve Vessels.  I also note that Philly Ship has just secured new commercial work in the form of an order to build an innovative vessel that will help service offshore wind developments—and create an essential new capability in our Jones Act fleet.

Further, to help train the next generation of workers with the essential skills needed here and across the Nation to build ships—and to continue to strengthen our industrial base—MARAD recently awarded Philly Ship a grant under to provide more than $700,000 to support an innovative, Apprentice Training Program here.

It has taken years of work by the Department of Transportation, the Maritime Administration, the leaders of our state maritime academies, and of course bipartisan support in Congress and across Administrations to reach this historic day—and the future here is incredibly bright.  

I again thank everyone who has contributed so much to this.

Having said this, before I close, I must also address the most critical issue facing the industry in which cadets trained aboard the NSMVs will serve—and that is the moral imperative of creating an inclusive merchant marine in which every mariner is treated with dignity and respect and is able to work every single day in a culture that does not tolerate sexual assault or harassment or any form of bullying or disrespect. 

As you know, at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy operated by the Maritime Administration, we have paused our Sea Year training aboard commercial vessels while we work to strengthen both the measures we will require of the carriers carrying cadets and our own Academy policies and procedures to improve safety and support a culture of respect.

We are hard at work with stakeholders from across the industry—including our State Maritime Academies—to develop the plan we owe to Congress this month detailing the specific measures we will be implementing.

As Secretary Buttigieg has said, it’s not enough to say the right things….to say we have zero tolerance.  It’s not enough to say we take all allegations seriously. We have to fully implement the policies and procedures that will help prevent harassment and assault from happening—and we have to remove the barriers that have too often stood in the way of reporting when harassment and assaults have occurred.

The mariners who will train on the vessel whose keel laying we will witness need this new state-of-the-art training platform to learn the technical skills they will need to succeed in the 21st century maritime industry.  

They also need the results of the urgent work we are doing now to create an industry in which they will be respected and treated with dignity—regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, race, creed, or color.

This is our watch.  

And I am confident that just as we are demonstrating by this milestone today that we are able to build an extraordinary ship—the first of its kind—on budget and on schedule as a result of Americans’ ingenuity and commitment to excellence, so too, working together, we can build a culture in this industry that embodies America’s promise of equal opportunity for every single person.

Thank you for your support and your work.