Accessibility argument threatens to derail Columbia dinner train

Advocates believe the train should comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act
Saturday, September 18, 2010 | 9:55 p.m. CDT; updated 8:39 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 12, 2011

COLUMBIA — Disagreements over whether a dinner train should be accessible to people with disabilities have stalled the project.

City officials and representatives of Central States Railroad Associates had hoped the Columbia Star Dinner Train would begin making its trips to Centralia and back this month. Advocates for people with disabilities, however, are insisting that the train have at least one car that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA prohibits discrimination and seeks equal opportunities for people with disabilities. The city is spending around $20,000 to ensure that its train facilities, including restrooms, parking spaces and the ramp to board the train, are in compliance.

Central States, however, argues that vintage trains are specifically exempt from the ADA and that creating a compliant car would cost about $175,000, making it economically impossible for now. The Columbia Star passenger cars were built by Pullman-Standard more than 70 years ago.

Making a vintage dining car comply with the ADA would require an accessible restroom, wider aisles and a side entry door. Lorah Steiner, the director of the Columbia Convention and Visitor's Bureau, said the number of seats that would be lost to such a modification would render the car unprofitable, and would force Central States to raise prices for all its products and services to a level that would make the project infeasible.

"This is why the operators have said, repeatedly, that they would (receive) funds from other source (grants, CVB Tourism Development fund, etc.) in order to modify a car for accessibility and continue to operate profitably," Steiner said in an e-mail to the Missourian.

Scott Bannister, legal adviser for Central States, wrote a letter to the city on Aug. 30 about the matter.

“The ADA specifically and precisely exempted antiquated rail cars such as those owned by Central States Rail from meeting ADA requirements,” Bannister wrote.

Representatives of Services for Independent Living and the city's Disabilities Commission, however, say the train should comply with ADA.

In response to letters from Aimee Wehmeier of Services for Independent Living and Homer Page, chairman of the Disabilities Commission, the Columbia City Council voted at its Sept. 7 meeting to direct Central States to provide an accessible rail car within two years. That motion, however, conflicts with a contract it approved with the company in June.

Central States is now asking that the city give it five years to provide an accessible car, according to a report written by Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine. That issue will be up for discussion at the council's meeting Monday night.

Services for Independent Living does not support that proposal.

“I do not know how many cars there are, but I think that at least one should be accessible,” said Max Lewis, president of the group's board.

Lewis said the ADA law may apply in this case.

“First, the train is being renovated in 2010," Lewis said. "Second, if the train is being renovated for any other precise purpose than originally intended, then there is an obligation to apply the ADA standard to the modification."

The Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau has been working for months to bring the dinner train to town. Steiner said the ADA does not apply because Central States is not renovating the Columbia Star dining cars.

St. Romaine said in his report that the "considerable loss of seating and associated revenue due to aisle width" would create "an unreasonable burden and not make the business viable."

Steiner said she understands the position of those representing people with disabilities but hopes to find a solution. She said it is an odd situation because insisting that the train comply with ADA from the start will also ensure it never comes to town.

"Everyone's trying to do the right thing here," Steiner said, adding that the dinner train manager, Greg Weber of Central States, will attend Monday's meeting to talk about the issue with council members.

The Columbia Star would include a kitchen car, two locomotives, a lounge car and vintage dining cars. It would run on the same tracks used by the city's Columbia Terminal, or COLT, railroad.

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Ray Shapiro September 18, 2010 | 10:37 p.m.

Did the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Columbia include input from Services for Independent Living, or any other professionals who represent people with disabilities, or was this a deal behind closed doors between a private train track opportunist, with a select target group of customers in mind, and a missed opportunity to court a group of customers which are often shut out for one reason or another?
How would you feel if you were told that you were an after thought or that there's no place for you on the train...even if you could afford a ticket and wanted to be included?
I hope there's some future good P.R. on this local touristy venture.
Some kind of compromise seems to be in order.

(Report Comment)
Phil Wilkinson September 19, 2010 | 4:55 a.m.

What's the big Hoo-Haa? The railroad says it will need 5 years to comply. Who knows, it could be sooner than that if the funds are there.
If the ADA peruses this ignorantly, then no one will be going on the dinner train. In short, the train will leave town before anyone gets a chance to ride it! If I'm not mistaken, didnt we just open up a new city hall complex before it was ADA accessible out front?

(Report Comment)
John Hinten September 19, 2010 | 7:17 a.m.

In response to Phil above:

Do you then feel you have more right to ride this train than say.... I do?

What if the train had a "no people of color or middle eastern nationality" rule? would that be OK with you too?

What if it had a "no women" rule, would that be acceptable to you as well?

If not then I am assuming you agree that the civil rights of persons in our country are a good thing, yet you just stated it is OK for the train and city of Columbia to exclude a portion of the community AND deny our civil rights....

why should you be allowed to ride this train for 5 years and we have to wait? why not EVERYONE wait until the train meets all of its legal obligations?

(Report Comment)
Bill Fisher September 19, 2010 | 8:28 a.m.

In response to John above: "why not EVERYONE wait until the train meets all of its legal obligations?"

Because then it just may not happen at all. Let them get it off the ground, become financially stable, and then the improvements will come. Why should 98% of the population have to pay for the issues only a few have?

(Report Comment)
John Hinten September 19, 2010 | 8:41 a.m.

first of all according to the latest census information more than 18% of the population is covered under the ADA with a disability of one or the other ...

Secondly the ADA is not only a civil rights law, it is also common sense and the right thing to do AND it includes another almost 20% potential increase in revenue for businesses when they comply.

As for "98% paying for a few" ... where do your numbers come from? I gave you the information mine came from ....

let me guess you made up your own statistics

(Report Comment)
Ed Ricciotti September 19, 2010 | 10:21 a.m.

This reminds me a little about the Quintons issue a few years back when I was on the Disabilities Commission. That issue stemmed from the fact that Quintons essentially built another story to its building and there were two things wrong with it. One, it didn't have an elevator and two the patio loomed over the sidewalk. A letter was written to the council. To me it just seems that the city does not have a policy when it comes to approving business licenses or building plans in regards to ADA. By the way, I really don't see this train financially viable if it is disregarding people with disabilities. Many seniors, retired or not, are needing mobile devices to get around. These folks are the ones most likely to afford to slap down 140 dollars a couple for dinner and a train ride. Plus there is a number of professionals with disabilities that will take there money elsewhere.
The city needed to take a proactive approach to this. Those exemptions in the ADA, as far as I can tell were to ensure the historic nature of the car and not to be used as a loophole to get around the ADA act. This is also private train running on a public taxpayer funded track. All taxpayers should have access to a business running on "their" track.

(Report Comment)

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