Columbia Dinner Train Remains Inaccessible

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COLUMBIA - The Columbia Star Dinner Train remains inaccessible almost two years after it first opened to protests over its inability to provide wheelchair access for riders.

Members of the Mid-Missouri Advocacy Coalition, along with other opposition, staged a protest during the train's inaugural trip in July 2011.  Demonstrators protested the train's lack of accessibility for those in wheelchairs, and the city's involvement through a grant and access to public tracks.

ADA specialist Troy Balthazor was at the protest in 2011, and said the city's contract with the train, which included the $45,000 grant, was the main issue behind the demonstration.

"The primary concern was the use of tax money to support inaccessible ventures--ventures that aren't accessible to all the people who pay tax money in our city," said Balthazor.

Columbia Star Dinner Train owner Mark Vaughn said he explored different options to make the train accessible.

"It's a challenge because to make a car accessible, it's quite expensive, and we've looked for funding to assist with the project.  And, we haven't been successful in finding any of that funding, and the project we're working on now is at least a step in the right direction," said Vaughn.

Vaughn said he's working to get a lift from the airport.  If it is usable with the train, he said he wants to get it in place as soon as possible.  However, he said he's never had to turn away customers due to disabilities.  Currently, train employees are manually lifting passengers in wheelchairs aboard the train. 

"That's very unsafe practice--it's been specifically ruled out in the ADA as a means of accommodating people with disabilities," said Balthazor.

 Founder of the Mid-Missouri Advocacy Coalition John Hinten was at the protest and still raises issue with the train.

"We don't want special treatment.  We want equal access.  We want to be able to spend our money in businesses and support a business just like everybody else, but then they drug the city into it by using tax dollars, which made it a whole different issue.  It's not just a business now that isn't accessible; it's also a city that's in partnership with the business," Hinten said. 

Deputy city manager Tony St. Romaine said the city wanted to bring the train to Columbia because it would be a regional attraction.

"It certainly brings people from outside of Columbia, especially from the Saint Louis and Kansas City regions.  If you look at their ridership, you will see that they are actually attracting a lot of folks into Columbia that are from outside of Columbia," said St. Romaine.

St. Romaine said getting the train toward full compliance with ADA standards is a top priority for the city.