Zilker Zephyr owners say goodbye while city looks for new vendor

Zilker Zephyr, a miniature train concession at Zilker Park, announced its permanent closure in a Jan. 29 Facebook post. (Courtesy city of Austin)
Zilker Zephyr, a miniature train concession at Zilker Park, announced its permanent closure in a Jan. 29 Facebook post. (Courtesy city of Austin)

Zilker Zephyr, a miniature train concession at Zilker Park, announced its permanent closure in a Jan. 29 Facebook post. (Courtesy city of Austin)

After 22 years in business, the family that runs the Zilker Zephyr, a miniature train course at Zilker Park, said goodbye, according to a Jan. 29 Facebook post.

The business had been closed for repairs since rainstorms last May caused erosion along the river and runoff along the hike and bike trail.

According to the Facebook post, Zilker Zephyr management worked with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department to develop a game plan.

The estimated repairs would cost $286,000 and take 14 months to complete, according to an Oct. 22 presentation on the Zilker Zephyr made by city staff to the parks and recreation board. The costs of the repairs were the duty of the vendor, per the contract, and in a statement, the city noted that the erosion repairs would take longer than the remaining length of the contract.

"In consideration of the additional repair costs, the Department worked in good faith with the vendor on an agreement to continue operations while preserving future bidding opportunities," the city said.

Parks department staff recommended that the parks and recreation board extend the Zilker Zephyr contract for four years, with the option of a one-year extension, but the board’s concessions and contract committee recommended that the board reopen the bid for the miniature train concession.

At the Oct. 22 meeting, board members voted 6-3 to reopen the bid rather than extend the contract.

This came as a surprise to the Zilker Zephyr team, which had spent “countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars on designs and preparing paperwork for Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and City of Austin permits,” according to the Facebook post.

After the board meeting, Zilker Zephyr reached out to the parks department and received a final offer, which guaranteed a three-year contract with two one-year extensions options, per the post.

The business turned down the offer.

“Due to the amount of money we had projected we would have to invest for the repair - we understood only a contract with a guaranteed five years would make financial sense for our level of investment,” Zilker Zephyr management wrote in the Facebook post.

In its statement, the city said that after the two sides were unable to come to an agreement for a new contract, the Parks and Recreation Department "has been researching public, train amusement attractions to ensure a competitive bidding process for future operations" and will begin accepting bids from companies to operate the train this spring.

In its statement, the city said the temporary closure of the Zilker Zephyr "is more than train ride through Zilker Park, it's park of Austin's history and a cultural institution."

In a tweet, Mayor Steve Adler said the city is in the process of finding a new operator to make the necessary repairs and get the train running again.

"The Zilker Zephyr will chug on," Adler wrote. "It is an institution that contributes to the uniqueness of Austin."

Update, 6:53 p.m.: This story has been updated to include the response of the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department as well as Mayor Steve Adler. The original version of the story stated the Zilker Zephyr would permanently close. While the original owner will stop operation of the train, the city is working to find another company to make repairs and take over control of the Zilker Zephyr in order to restore service.

Emma Freer


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