By:  Karen Stephenson

The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) has issued proposed accessibility guidelines for the construction and alteration of passenger vessels covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  These guidelines will apply to passenger vessels that provide public transportation services such as ferries and excursion boats, and public accommodation passenger vessels such as dinner or sightseeing cruises, as well as other types of vessels, classified according to passenger capacity.

Among other things, the proposed guidelines address ramps, gangways, boarding lifts, and other components of accessible boarding; onboard accessible routes connecting passenger decks and passenger amenities within decks; accessible means of escape; doorways and coamings; toilet rooms; wheelchair spaces in assembly areas and transportation seating areas; assistive listening systems; general emergency alarms; and guest rooms.  

Two of the most notable provisions in the proposed guidelines are:

•           An elevator or platform lift would be required to connect passenger decks unless one of ten proposed exceptions apply. 

•           A minimum number of guest rooms with mobility features would be required on cruise ships.  Cruise ships with 501 to 1,000 guest rooms would be required to provide a minimum of 3 percent of guest rooms with mobility features.  Cruise ships with more than 1,000 guest rooms would be required to provide a minimum of 30 guest rooms with mobility features for the first 1,000 guest rooms (3 percent), plus 2 guest rooms with mobility features for each additional 100 guest rooms or fraction thereof over 1,000 (2 percent). 

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) are required to issue accessibility standards for the construction and alteration of passenger vessels covered by the ADA that are consistent with the proposed guidelines.  To that end, passenger vessel owners and operators would not be required to comply with the guidelines until they are adopted by DOT and DOJ as accessibility standards.  Moreover, the proposed guidelines would not require existing passenger vessels to be made accessible until they are altered.  The DOJ has sole discretion to determine whether the proposed guidelines require owners and operators of existing passenger vessels to engage in “readily achievable” barrier removal and, if so, to issue regulations consistent with that determination.

Public comments on the proposed guidelines must be submitted to the Access Board by September 23, 2013.  After the public comment period, the Access Board will finalize the guidelines based on the feedback it receives.  The Access Board estimates the total compliance costs of the proposed guidelines (annualized over 20 years) to be more than $60 million.