COLUMBIA — The company bringing the Columbia Star dinner train to town will have five years to provide a car accessible to people with disabilities, the Columbia City Council decided Monday night.
"I hope that the company will make this happen," Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said.
The decision means the train, which is now waiting to be shipped from Iowa, could arrive in Columbia within two or three weeks. Plans call for dinner rides from Columbia to Centralia and back.
Representatives of Central States Railroad Associates said they are excited about the possibility of creating a dinner train with a car fully accessible to people with disabilities, but it will need a source of outside money to do so. Greg Weber, manager of the dinner train, talked with City Council members about the issue Monday night.
Advocates for people with disabilities have said the dinner train should have an accessible car the day it begins business here, especially if it receives city support. Several people spoke at Monday's meeting, including Kathleen Weinschenck, her partner Greg Ahrens and Disabilities Commission Chairman Homer Page.
"It will be considered a step backward for the disability community if the dinner train comes to Columbia without an accessible car," Page said. "Columbia has made a commitment to make an accessible community."
Council members struggled. Mayor Bob McDavid said there was no solution that entirely satisfied him. In the end, the council voted unanimously to extend the deadline from two years to five years for coming up with some way of providing an accessible train car.
Weber and Central States President Mark Vaughn wrote a letter to the city dated Monday, saying the expense of creating a vintage rail car that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act is too high.
"As a small business, we simply cannot carry such financial burden alone on a large project such as this," the letter stated.
Still, the Disabilities Commission did not support the proposal.
"Five years seem a long time (to me)," Page said. "I am concerned accessibility would not take place."
Central States argues that vintage trains are exempt from meeting ADA requirements because they are antiquated rail cars.
City Attorney Fred Boeckmann, asked to weigh in on the legal aspects of the matter, said he had read the company's arguments but had not researched the issue himself. He doubted whether complying with the disabilities act would ever become economically feasible. Hoppe was more optimistic, saying city grant writers and others might be able to find creative sources of funding.
Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, sees both sides. She backed Central States, saying the company wants to serve people with disabilities, but she agreed it will need time and money to do so. She has previously said that requiring compliance with the ADA from the outset would prevent the dinner train from coming to town.
"It is important not to confuse desire with what it is economically feasible," Steiner said.
Weber agreed during the council meeting, saying the company probably would not come to Columbia if it were required to bring a compliant car immediately.
The big picture is price versus good will. Central States said it would cost $175,000 to make a vintage rail car accessible. It would need wider aisles, a compliant restroom and a side-entry door. That would eliminate seats necessary to produce the right amount of income to make the dinner train business viable, it argues.
The letter from Central States said it is willing to work with the city to add an ADA car to the historic train in the future. By doing so, it would become one of the first companies in the country to offer a fully compliant, vintage dinner train.
"We are really looking forward to coming to Columbia," Weber said. "We feel this is a good area."