COLUMBIA — The general manager of the Columbia Star Dinner Train hopes to have a wheelchair-accessible car in use within a year.
“I want to make it clear that we’ve always welcomed everybody,” Greg Weber of Central States Rail Associates said at a media open house Tuesday morning. “But due to some of the limitations that we have — with the doorways and the bathrooms on the car being from when they were originally built in the '30s and '40s — it limits what we can do.”
What: The Columbia Star Dinner Train offers a four-course meal on Friday and Saturday evenings and brunch on Sundays.
When: The train leaves at 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 11:30 a.m. on Sundays. Opening night is Friday.
How long: The train travels to Centralia and back. Trips last between 2 1/2 and 3 hours.
Where: Passengers board the train at 6501 Brown Station Road, where the dinner train is headquartered.
Cost: $65.95 per person for dinner, $49 per person for brunch
Reservations: Visit the Columbia Star Dinner Train's website, dinnertrain.com, or call the reservations line at (573) 474-2223.
Opening to the public on Friday, the train will roll between Columbia and Centralia. Service will include a four-course dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings and a brunch on Sundays.
The Columbia Star will seat a maximum of 224 passengers, but the lack of access to people in wheelchairs remains a sticking point.
At issue is whether the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to the dinner train. In a September 2010 letter from Central States Rail Associates to the City Council, the company explained why it believes it is exempt from ADA regulations. In the letter, the company estimated that creating a wheelchair-accessible rail car could cost more than $175,000, an amount considered “excessive and unreasonable burden on our new business.”
The company also cited Section 304 (c) of the ADA, which provides specified exemptions for certain antiquated cars. (See the link in Related Media.)
Months ago, Weber said, the company purchased a side-loading train car that would be more readily transformable into being wheelchair-accessible. Moving the car to Columbia from Iowa would cost about $10,000, he said, and converting the car would cost much more than that. Installing a lift would cost between $50,000 and $150,000, he said — the wideness of the estimate depending on a number of factors.
Whether the Iowa-based company will go through with the plan to incorporate the accessible car depends on how successful the Columbia Star is. “It depends on the cost involved and it depends on the cash flow,” Weber said. “It is a business.”
Protest planned for Friday
Troy Balthazor, secretary of the Mid-Missouri Advocacy Coalition, which advocates for people with disabilities, said he and others are dissatisfied with the company’s claim that it is exempt. Citing Section 37.155 of the Federal Transit Administration Code of Federal Regulations, Balthazor said the company has not provided a waiver proving it is exempt from ADA regulations. (See Related Media for a link to the code.)
At a meeting last week, representatives of the train company and of people with disabilities, as well as Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine, talked over their positions. At one point, St. Romaine, who is the city's ADA coordinator, said he wasn't consulted early enough in the process and hopes that won't happen again in similar projects using city money.
Even so, St. Romaine said the city concluded early on that the company wasn't breaking the law by proceeding without an accessible car.
“Our legal department has looked at the agreement even before it was executed by the council,” St. Romaine said in a later interview. “They had a legal opinion that that type of business that operates with antique, historic rail cars is not required to abide by the ADA regulation because it is almost impossible to convert an antique car to accommodate a wheelchair.”
But he thinks the company will make the changes.
“I think this is something they don’t have to do, but they want to do it — so we’re going to keep pushing them until they actually get it done,” St. Romaine said.
The train company has a five-year contract that started in June 2010. St. Romaine said that if the company has not made sufficient attempts to address the accessibility issue within the time frame of the contract, the city will consider ending it.
Aimee Wehmeier, the executive director of Services for Independent Living, said that despite St. Romaine's assurances, a demonstration is planned for opening night.
"I'm not sure that it makes sense to support a business that is not accessible when there are numerous businesses that are," Wehmeier said. "Yes, you can look around Columbia and you can see that there are other inaccessible businesses, but the difference is that the city is supporting this business. They are using funding that I am helping pay for to bring in something that is not accessible — that’s really the issue for me."
Balthazor said people in the community are considering taking legal action to determine whether the company is breaking the law.
“There are a lot of people out there that are willing to file a complaint on that and find out,” he said. “The people who will make that determination would be the enforcement agencies. The Department of Justice and the Department of Transportation are the only ones that can finally decide whether or not these folks have met their requirements. It is not up to the city.”
Look inside shows finished train
The media open house on Tuesday provided a look into the finished train, which has a distinctly vintage feel. Five cars in all, it has a central kitchen car with two dining cars on each side.
A look inside the dining cars shows a central aisle flanked by tables with crisp, white tablecloths, plain ivory dinnerware and silver utensils. The walls appear to be part wood paneling and part velvet-like green, the same material as on the chairs. The carpet is deep red.
Outside, the train is a deep blue with yellow lettering. The paint looks new, but there are dents in places, signs of a past life on the rails somewhere else.
Talks about a local dinner train began in June 2010, when Central States Rail Associates approached the city seeking support to bring one to Columbia. The Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau approved $45,000 to help move the five-car train to Columbia from Denver, Iowa. The city later agreed to allow the Columbia Star's use of the city's 21-mile rail line to Centralia and the Columbia station at 6501 Brown Station Road.
About $20,000 more in public money was used to upgrade the train station’s facilities, which included replacing gravel train entrances with asphalt ones.
Like Wehmeier, Balthazor stressed the main concern for him is one of public funding.
“Of course the city’s money is our money, and so the obvious concern right off that bat was that public money was being used to subsidize an inaccessible business to come to town,” he said. “So I think you’ve got a couple issues here: You’ve got an inaccessible train, and you’ve got issues with a local government and their decision-making in how to use public funding.”