e were reminded recently that the government still owes the cruise industry a set of guidelines with which to govern handicapped access to the burgeoning fleet of cruise ships serving the U.S.

Nearly three years ago, the government appointed an advisory committee to work out guidelines for making passenger vessels more accessible. The group included people from industry, government and advocacy groups representing the disabled. At the time, the Americans with Disabilities Act already had been on the books for several years, but nobody had come up with a workable plan for applying its accessibility standards to cruise ships, ferries, fishing boats and other vessels, much less passenger terminals, docks and piers.

The government agency that deals with such matters, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, received a report from the advisory committee late last year.

The Board's staff is drafting passenger vessel-accessibility guidelines based on that report, but they are not likely to be published until next year. That will be followed by a review process, public comments and perhaps hearings.

If the guidelines are adopted, the Justice and Transpiration departments will be expected to incorporate them into their regulations and determine how and when they are to be applied, which ships should be "grandfathered" and which need to be modified and when. More cost-benefit analysis. More time.

Meanwhile, an unprecedented number of new cruise ships -- and vessels of all other types, from houseboats to ferries -- are under construction. To their credit, vessel operators increasingly are incorporating accessible design features into their new builds. But this task would be far simpler, and less risky, if the industry and disabled travelers had the benefit of clear guidelines from the government.

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