COLUMBIA – A line of 14 people formed at the opening of the Columbia Star Dinner Train Friday night – with no intention to ride.
The Columbia Star's inaugural run was met by protesters from the disabilities community wielding signs with phrases such as "I would rather be on the dinner train" and "I have wheels, will you subsidize me?"
Since June 2010, when Central States Rail Associates, the dinner train's operator, met with the Columbia City Council and proposed bringing the dinner train to Columbia, advocates for people wth disabilities have voiced concern over the train's lack of wheelchair accessibility.
Protesters began arriving around 5 p.m. to protest the train's first ride. At the demonstration, many protesters voiced their disapproval of the council's use of public funding and resources to support the business coming to Columbia.
Last year, the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau approved $45,000 to help move the train to Columbia from Denver, Iowa. About $20,000 more in public money was used to upgrade the exisiting train station's facilities and prepare them for use. The Columbia Star also uses the city's rail line, which runs between Columbia and Centralia and the city-owned train station at 6501 Brown Station Road.
"Our biggest problem is that the government gave $65,000 to the business," Allison Reinhart, one of the protesters, said. "The business being inaccessible is bad, but them giving the train tax dollars is what we're mad about."
Troy Balthazor, secretary of the Mid-Missouri Advocacy Coalition, hopes this demonstration will have a lasting effect.
"What we want to accomplish is to follow through and make a clear statement to the city and the council that we expect more of them in the future," Balthazor said.
An estimated 85 tickets were sold for opening night, according to Brian Cunningham, a Columbia Star employee. He said things were running smoothly.