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Austin Parks Foundation gives an update on Zilker train restoration

Thursday, February 25, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

The Austin Parks Foundation has laid out its plans to restore the beloved train formerly known as the Zilker Zephyr, which ceased operations last year. In January 2020, after more than two decades in operation, the owners of the Zephyr announced in a Facebook post that they were shutting down for good after rainstorms in 2019 rendered the train inoperable.

Simultaneously, contract negotiations between the business owners and the Parks and Recreation Department broke down. According to the post, the owners requested a five-year extension to their contract, an amount the city wasn’t willing or able to meet at the time.

To fill the hole left by the Zephyr, the Austin Parks Foundation has stepped up and taken on the responsibility of bringing a train back to Zilker. According to Parks Foundation CEO Colin Wallis, City Council asked the organization to take over the project.

The Parks and Recreation Board convened on Feb. 23 to hear a presentation from the foundation. During their presentation, Ladye Anne Wofford, Parks Foundation chief mission officer, highlighted four focus areas for the new train: preserving the tradition of having a train at Zilker; improving the experience for Austinites; efficiency; and community funding.

The Parks Foundation is having a new train custom-built and new tracks laid down, investing in landscape upgrades in the area, and is looking to fund the entire project itself. Right now, the foundation estimates the project will require a budget of $800,000.

According to Wofford, that estimate doesn’t include operating costs like workforce needs, wages and a ticketing system for riders. She went on to say that once the train is up and running, the project will “ideally pay for itself.”

As the foundation is working out the logistics of a concessions agreement with the city, they’re certain they want at least a five-year contract.

Wofford said, “We’re looking at a minimum of a five-year agreement, but we also know that we want the train to live on much longer than that.”

She also hinted at a loftier goal for the new train: assisting with transportation needs around Zilker.

“We do think there’s a lot of potential for the train to become more than just a short ride. It could possibly also become a people-mover, which we think could help address some of the parking issues and other concerns people have had about accessing Zilker Park,” Wofford said.

On the whole, board members seemed pleased with the thought and analysis that went into the presentation.

Board Member Fred Morgan went as far as to say, “Great presentation, and I’m looking forward to taking my four-year-old granddaughter on train rides.”

Though many of the details are still being sorted out, the Parks Foundation website estimates an open date of this year. Wallis closed the presentation with some cautious optimism: “Obviously, we are not in the train business … nor did we ever anticipate being in the train business … but it’s a labor of love and we think it’s well worth it.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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