Asst. City Manager Calls Inaccessible Train "A Mistake"

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COLUMBIA - At the meeting Thursday to discuss remedies for a new dinner train that cannot handle some diabled patrons, Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine said he believes leaving out the community in wheelchairs to be a "mistake" and "hopes it never happens again."

The meeting took place between city leaders and critics who have complained the city shouldn't allow train service that excludes some. The Columbia Star Dinner Train will begin service July 15.  

The city of Columbia gave the train's owners $45,000 in subsidies and spent around another $20,000 to build a platform that would be conducive to the train and fit the American Disability Act (ADA) policies.  

The meeting was held after a group from the disabled community said it would demonstrate at the dinner train's opening day.  Seventeen people attended, including Greg Weber, the train's manager.  Troy Balthazor, a member of Mid-Missouri Advocacy Coalition (MMAC), and other disability advocates expressed concern that the city would give subsidies to a restaurant that couldn't accommodate everyone in the community, when everyone must pay taxes to fund the project--including those with disabilities who cannot use it.  

"I think it’s important that if the city is going to spend thousands and thousands of dollar supporting a business to come to town, that it be useable for all of our citizens," Balthazor said.

The train was built in 1938 in California so it falls under the federal exemption for antique trains to comply with the current ADA law.

"We are not discriminating against anyone.  We are just limited to what our train can do," Weber said.  "Frankly these issues aren’t brought up very often because of the way the cars were built in the '30's and '40's.  They are limited on access and we don’t have any choice on that."

Weber said his company has purchased an additional car that is in Iowa which will eventually be modified so that people in wheelchairs can use the train.  Weber said It is a matter of getting the money to bring that car to Missouri and engineering the chair lift.  He estimated it would cost from $8,000 to $15,000 just to bring the carriage down to Missouri.  That does not include the engineer work needed to be done to make the carriage accessible to wheel chairs. Weber said his company plans to use some the profits made from the dinner train to do both of those projects.  

Columbia Assistant City Manager, Tony St. Romaine, defended Weber saying Weber wants everyone to be able to use the train, it's just a matter of time and money.

"This is a new business.  We know how new businesses come and go especially restaurants.  And certainly a large amount of their business is in that restaurant business.  So you know they would obviously like to see how they do for the first year or so before they invest major funding into aquiring a car and making it truly accessible for everybody," St. Romaine said.

To go to the Columbia Star Dinner Train's website click here.