Zilker Train Could Be On Express Track To New Operator With Help From Austin Parks Foundation

Feb 20, 2020

The Austin City Council voted to move ahead with a plan to get the Zilker mini-train up and running sooner rather than later. Instead of going through its typical procurement process — which would mean a new train operator would be more than a year away — the Parks and Recreation Department is turning to Austin Parks Foundation.

The resolution passed Thursday asks the city manager to negotiate with the foundation, a nonprofit group that supports the city’s parks and trails, to either find an interim vendor or find a way to operate a train itself while a Zilker Park Master Plan is being developed. All proceeds from the train would be distributed to nonprofits in and around Zilker.

 “After the short-term process is completed, it is the Parks and Recreation Department’s intention — it has always been their intention, but I understand it wasn’t clear — that there would be a solicitation process,” Kimberly McNeeley, director of the department, said to the council Thursday. 

The solicitation process for a long-term operator would be open to everyone, including the interim vendor. But the interim vendor is not guaranteed the final contract. 

The vendor will need to provide a train. While the city owns the train tracks that run through Zilker, the last operator, Texas Special, which announced in January it was leaving, owned its train.

McNeeley said the eventual bidding process could include a reimagining of the Zilker train entirely, perhaps resulting in a different amusement ride.

“The Zilker Park Master Plan, which will be developed over the next few years, may provide opportunities for the train ride to evolve or potentially expand, and we want to have the opportunity to incorporate the train ride into that master plan,” Council Member Paige Ellis said in a statement. “Once the master plan is developed, there would be a competitive process for future train operations.”

Also critical — and the main reason this resolution was needed — is repair work under the tracks at its turnaround spot. The resolution asks the city manager to coordinate with a contractor to take the lead on repairs. 

The train hasn't been operational since May. Heavy rains last spring washed away a lot of the earth supporting the tracks. The last vendor was contractually obligated to repair the tracks, but said it would not do so without a contract extension long enough for the company to make back the $286,000 repair price tag. 

If city staff can’t come to an agreement with Austin Parks Foundation on finding a way to operate the train in the interim period, the lengthy, normal request for proposals process will begin.  

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