Austin Steam Train Association is searching for donations to restore a passenger train car after losing funds from the city of Cedar Park in September.
Cedar Park City Council voted not to extend a 2015 agreement with the steam train association, or ASTA, during a Sept. 22 meeting. The move essentially canceled a reimbursement of up to $35,000 for restoring the association’s City of Chicago passenger car.
The original 2015 tourism agreement planned to use hotel occupancy tax funds to reimburse the ASTA for restoring the car by Sept. 30, 2016. The ASTA executive members approached the city to request extending the completion date to June 30, 2017, due to losing staff members and volunteers who were key to the project, ASTA Executive Director Lil Serafine said.
The Austin Steam Train Association has been working to restore the 786 steam engine since it developed mechanical issues in 1999.[/caption]
Council members expressed frustration that the funds dedicated through the agreement would go to the City of Chicago car and not the restoration of the ASTA’s 786 steam engine. The city has given funding to the ASTA since 2000 for restoration efforts, advertising and box office uses, according to city documents, but several council members thought all city funds given for restoration had gone to the 786 steam engine.
“Years ago, when we first started putting money in to get the engine restored, that was our focus,” Council Member Cobby Caputo said. “I kind of feel like as a donor on behalf of the citizens that we didn’t really get what we asked for.”
History of donations
According to documents from the city, Cedar Park has donated $426,066.33 to the ASTA since Oct. 1, 2000. Of that amount, $205,658.61 was for restoration projects. The ASTA’s restoration donations go toward two restoration funds—one for passenger cars and another to restore the 786 steam engine, Serafine said.
The 786 steam engine was leased to the ASTA by the city of Austin in 1989, and the association relied on it for locomotive power for several years, Serafine said. The engine developed mechanical problems in 1999, and the ASTA realized it needed a complete rebuild. The restoration of the steam engine is still underway, she said.
The projected cost for the entire steam engine restoration is $2.75 million, and about $2.1 million has been put into the restoration so far, ASTA board President Robert Schoen said.
“I’ve got 2.1 million reasons to finish this locomotive and have it steam out of here again,” he said.
The passenger car restoration fund helps maintain the ASTA’s nine cars in its fleet, and the funds help restore about one or two passenger cars at a time, ASTA board Chairman Ben Sargent said.
Current restoration projects include the City of Chicago car and the Cedar Park car, a 1946 former coach car that the ASTA is converting into a concession car. Sargent said the ASTA hopes to add the Cedar Park car to its fleet by the end of the year.
He said restorations are largely completed by ASTA volunteers. The volunteers also assist with operating the railroad, which runs 110 trains each year.
Sargent said the ASTA has been moving forward with restoring the 786 steam engine. Schoen said it could be completed in two years, and Sargent said the ASTA plans to look for a contract foreman to supervise the final assembly of the 786 steam engine.
“If we get somebody in here who can devote their attention to that project, it will go much quicker,” Sargent said.
City Council’s decision
Council Member Jon Lux said he recognized volunteers largely handle the restoration efforts, and that the loss of volunteers and staff members affected the ASTA’s ability to finish the City of Chicago car restoration.
“We authorized that money, and [the ASTA was] assuming that was going to be part of their budget,” he said.
Other council members said the city was not receiving a good return on its investments. From 2012-15, the city gave $109,000 to the ASTA. The city’s economic development department estimated the city received $62,572 in hotel occupancy tax funds in the same time period. Lux said that was not an apples-to-apples comparison.
“They’re bringing thousands of people into the city who are probably not just coming to ride the train—they’re probably shopping and going to other things,” he said. “To stop supporting them—that would be disadvantageous toward the steam train.”
Mayor Pro Tem Lyle Grimes said the city should continue to provide advertising dollars, but he said council should not give any more funds to restoring passenger cars. The council allocated $35,000 to the ASTA in the fiscal year 2016-17 budget for advertising.
“I think we’ve done our part,” Grimes said.
Council members Stephen Thomas, Grimes, Caputo, Kristyne Bollier and Mayor Matt Powell voted not to extend the funding agreement. Council Member Corbin Van Arsdale was not in attendance.
“I wouldn’t want it to be taken as being against the steam train or against the restoration,” Powell said. “Instead I would like to see funds directed much more specifically.”
Serafine said the ASTA has been looking for donors for the City of Chicago restoration. Sargent said the ASTA would also request the city’s support with funding the steam engine restoration when a clearer plan is in place.
Several council members mentioned funding the 786 steam engine in the future and wanted to see a plan to keep the restoration efforts on a timeline.
“I hope to see y’all back sooner rather than later with that plan,” Powell told them at the meeting. “Let’s see if we can bring that thing home.”
If you would like to make a donation to the Austin Steam Train Association, visit www.austinsteamtrain.org or call ASTA Executive Director Lil Serafine at 512-477-8468,