From the Desk Of: Restoration with a side of taxpayer money and the exemption of ADA

Tamara Nguyen
Tutor for Disability Support Services
Gulf Coast Community College

So here’s an interesting conundrum. Columbia city officials have recently undergone some fire after receiving complaints that the new Columbia dinner train receives support with taxpayer money, though the train is not handicapped accessible. Disabilities advocates have said that the train is breaking federal law by not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

dinner train

The Columbia Star Dinner Train in Columbia, Missouri.

However, Tony St. Romaine, Columbia, MO, Assistant City Manager, said that the train is exempt from federal accessibility laws because it is a vintage train. And though he conceded that there have been some retrofits, such as adding electricity, that the actual dining car is restored to its original splendor to provide its diners an experience of travel in that decades ago era. He furthermore said that “to make it accessible would basically ruin that experience.” [Source]

Though with a sentiment like that, its hard not to question then if simply because ADA didn’t exist forty or more years ago that its all right to recreate the same “experience” of inaccessibility and separation in an era where it does exist? That would be like walking into a “vintage” diner in Selma, Alabama and hanging a “Whites Only” sign on the front door and then adhering to that policy all so the city could “recreate the experience.”

Accessibility issues aside, Homer Page, chair for the Disabilities Commission in Columbia, brings forth even deeper issues; that is. should the city have invested public money supporting an inaccessible service for the community?

City official St. Romaine argues that what taxpayer money was invested into the construction and operation of the train, the city will more than get back in tourism revenue from the people who come to use the train.

Watch the actual news coverage video from KOMU 8 here.

Now, city officials have said that while it is too costly, and would “ruin the experience” to outfit the train dining car to be handicapped accessible, there are plans in the future, once this train has paid off, to create a handicapped accessible train. Though, after the remarks made earlier, to me that just sounds like a polite way of saying they will be building a train car for the handicapped that will continue to NOT ruin the experience of all the other train passengers sitting in the recreated era-appropriate train car.

But that does bring up something to ponder. If the point of recreating something in all the fine details that go into it to make whatever it is look historically accurate, does then adding the modern amenities necessary to making it accessible ruin the atmosphere of the vintage experience. Afterall, isn’t the point of restoration to bring that thing back to its original glory, which most likely means not handicapped accessible, unfortunately. And while not having that something be handicapped accessible may not have the same outwardly abhorrent statement being made as a “Whites Only” sign, it is nevertheless an underlying statement that granting accessibility to everyone is only important if aesthetics aren’t necessary.

And if we are at all considering that era-appropriate aesthetic should override the necessity to provide accessibility to all, then it is certainly arguable that something designed to be used by the city for its citizens and others should not be allowed to use all taxpayers dollars as it is openly choosing not to allow access to all of its constituents.

So what’s the answer to all this. I certainly don’t know. I do think that the situation was handled callously by city officials and made only worse with St. Romaine’s justification of aesthetic and placating with the promise of a future train car designed specifically for handicapped accessibility. Its a biting sting that could have been better delivered if perhaps had been consulted with the people of Columbia before the injury was made.

If you would like to see the dinner train that has caused such an uproar, you can visit its webpage here at

4 comments so far

  1. Deni on

    I have great respect and empathy for the community of people who are alternatively able. They have made great inroads into ADA spaces and places. I want everyone to be able to enjoy everything. But sometimes things take a little time. The dinner train folks did their homework and came up with a solution that would, given an opportunity, provide an income that will allow upgrades to be made that will satisfy the ‘disability advocates.’ Now that attempt to comply is smacked down and twisted. How about a little credit where credit is due. How about a little less whining and a sense of appreciation. It seems to me that this author (who is from nowhere near here according to the byline) would rather see no train for anybody now or in the future than have it operate for one minute without ada compliance. I want to eat dinner on the vintage train and I’m willing to guide, lift and carry anyone who can’t manage for themselves along with me. And someday, if we all go for a nice ride and some dinner, the money will manifest to add a lift, an ada restroom, and spaces for chairs and walkers. It will be fun. So let’s be positive about it, okay?

  2. John on

    That has been kinda my stance all along … if it were women or people of different races being denied access there would be a public outcry heard across the land, since it is just a percentage of the disability community folks take the “stop your complaining, it’s no big deal” approach

  3. Charles E Dudley Jr on

    The issue is should any city use tax payer money to fund a new business coming into it’s community that is NOT fully ADA Compliant.

    The answer is no.

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