After more than a decade of work, a new federal inspection program for towing vessels is nearing the finish line, a development industry experts say will improve safety by having a uniform set of standards for thousands of towboats and tugboats across the country.

The new regulations, which likely will be phased in over a few years, are expected to set equipment requirements for towing companies and to outline a uniform set of safety standards for areas such as training and holding drills.

The process the U.S. Coast Guard used to draft the rules involved hundreds of representatives of the towing and barge industries.

Despite support for the program from the industry’s larger players, the added costs of a safety management system may be too high for some smaller tow operators, leading to consolidations or closures, some officials said.

Towing vessels are used throughout the country’s waterways to move barges carrying bulk commodities like grain, coal and chemicals, as well as large, heavy equipment for industries such as construction and salvage.

The Coast Guard offered a bridge program in recent years to help operators prepare for the inspections.

A 2013 analysis by the agency found that the leading inspection issues recorded by field personnel included problems with general alarms, running lights, fire pumps and wiring materials and methods.

Once the rules are implemented, the Coast Guard could ban a vessel found in violation, issue fines or suspend licenses.

The Coast Guard believes the new rules “will ensure greater safety within the industry and … better represent the industry’s uniqueness,” the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which manages the Coast Guard, wrote in the Federal Register notice on the rule in 2011.

An operator’s compliance could be verified through audits, according to the proposed rule. The Coast Guard could conduct a compliance exam every few years, along with the option of random inspections.

“It has been a long time in the making,” said Spencer Murphy, general counsel and vice president of Canal Barge Co. in New Orleans. “It’s something that the industry has been an active participant in trying to get passed, because we think it’s a good idea.”

The proposed rule offers a few exemptions, including for vessels shorter than 26 feet that are not towing an oil-carrying barge and for work boats that are not performing commercial for-hire work but instead intermittently move equipment within a work site.

The process of drafting the framework began in 2003. Industry leaders and the Coast Guard held public meetings — including in New Orleans — to receive feedback.

The Coast Guard estimated in 2011 that the program would affect about 5,208 vessels that were operated by 1,059 companies. At the time, there were more than 1,500 towing vessels operating in the greater New Orleans area, according to the agency.

To make its case for the new standards, the Coast Guard had a consulting firm review a decade of data on towing activity, including accidents, in order to determine the potential impact of an inspection program.

Over a six-year period beginning in 2002, towing accidents killed an average of 23 people and injured 146 each year, according to the agency’s figures, estimating the damage at more than $63 million.

Implementing the program would cost about $130 million over a decade but would generate nearly $200 million in savings, according to the government. Costs would include Coast Guard-led inspections, reviewing applications for safety management systems and conducting compliance checks.

In the near term, the program is being reviewed at the White House Office of Management and Budget, a last step in the approval process. After that, the new rule could be published in the Federal Register by late June, according to the American Waterways Operators, a trade group that supports the initiative.

“The rule will raise safety standards throughout the tugboat, towboat and barge industry, incorporating and building on the safeguards that quality companies have already put in place and ensuring that all towing vessels achieve a minimum threshold of safety that is necessary to protect lives, the environment and property,” said Thomas Allegretti, the trade group’s president and CEO.

Many people in the towing industry said they’re aware of the program’s expected framework but are waiting to see the finished product.

One remaining question is whether the Coast Guard will allow inspections to be done by an approved third-party company — as many would prefer — rather than the agency itself.

“I think there’s going to be a resource problem with them being able to have enough Coast Guard members to conduct those,” said Angie Fay, vice president of quality assurance and corporate compliance at Blessey Marine Services in Harahan, which has about 85 towing vessels.

Fay acknowledged that some operators may face financial hurdles getting into compliance. “You’re going to have a couple one-offs, mom-and-pops that aren’t members of AWO that may struggle,” she said. “For them, I’m assuming the Coast Guard option will be their best bet. Following regulations is the cost of doing business. You have to do it.”

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.