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.