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This year has been off the rails, and this is especially true for Austin's beloved miniature choo choo the Zilker Zephyr.
Due to storm-related erosion beneath its tracks, the Zilker Zephyr—an emerald green, 72-passenger, propane-powered mini train that ran for 22 years—was forced to shut down in May of 2019.
The Zephyr, the second train in the park's history, was preceded by the 60-passenger gas-powered Zilker Eagle which ran from 1961-1996.
Lamenting the temporary closure of the train, the City of Austin issued a statement on Jan. 29. Due to severe erosion to an embankment supporting part of the train's tracks, the tracks were deemed unsafe and would require an evaluation followed by repairs in order to keep on chugging.
The damage could not have come at a more inconvenient time as the vendor that owned and operated the train, Texas Special Co., had less than a year left in their contract.
"Per the contract, the vendor is required to make all repairs; therefore, recouping erosion repairs would have required a period longer than the remaining contract period," the city stated.
The Austin Parks & Recreation Department said they worked in good faith with the vendor on an agreement to continue operations while preserving future bidding opportunities. Ultimately unable to come to a contract agreement with the vendor, the department thanked Texas Special for their service and moved on with their search for a new vendor.
At this time, the department is still in the early stages of operations planning, so no new vendor has been decided on.
Via a Facebook post, Zephyr management explained that they were offered a three year contract and that, due to the projected expenses of the repairs, only a five year contract would make economic sense.
The vendor further claimed they were misled by the city about their contractual obligations relating to the track's repair and their future rights regarding the operation of the train. Texas Special insisted that the entire ordeal ended up costing them over $40,000 and countless hours. Therefore, they announced they were taking away their train.
In February, Texas Special was sued by the city for literally trying to pull up stakes (in the form of bolts) from the Zilker tracks.
The path of Austin's Zilker train youtu.be
However badly the contract negotiations between the city and the Zilker Zephyr went, the Facebook comments relating to the loss of the train revealed that the true victims of the failed negotiations were the children of Austin who would no longer get to enjoy rides through the park.
Natalia Quiroz, a mother of two, recalls the joy the Zephyr brought to her daughter Mazzy before its closing.
"She was the one who loved it and always wanted to go again," Quiroz says.
Local musician Woode Wood, who had been performing for Zephyr passengers for 12 years, told Austonia he knows the kids are devastated about the train being gone from Zilker. He would put his all into entertaining the excited kids that rode by his usual spot, he says.
Wood is confident that the kids just want the train back and will be thrilled with any little locomotive they get.
"Kids will adapt and love the heck out of whatever they put up there as long as it works," he says. "As long as it moves and it goes around on a track, they're going to love it. Because they love being on a train and they don't care how it's powered, you know."
Ladye Anne Wofford, the Chief Mission Officer at Austin Parks Foundation, agrees with Wood that the kids are the true priority of the project, and says her whole foundation is enthused about the chance to bring this major source of Austin family fun back to the community.
"Countless Austinites grew up riding the train and taking their kids to ride the train, and I think keeping the experience alive is a great way to honor a place that made many of us fall in love with Austin in the first place… Zilker Park," Wofford says.
When the Austin City Council asked the non-profit APF in February to step in and steer the bad train situation to a better station, Wofford saw her organization "as a natural fit to bring the train back and improve it and use it as a way to help generate funds for Zilker park."
The new train will meld the mid-century nostalgia of a 1940s passenger train with the up-to-date amenities of an electric engine, while focusing on creating an amusement ride experience that is accommodating to every passenger, regardless of age or ability.
"There are just a lot of ways that we feel that we can improve the business model and the overall experience," Wofford says.
And fans of the Zilker train appear to be all on board.
"We have had a lot of interest and great feedback from people from all across the city—people definitely seem excited to get the train back up and running," she says. "Every time we've been at the site for planning meetings, we're always stopped and asked about the progress of the project and when the train is coming back."
The APF recently held an online contest to name the future train. According to Wofford, 750 Austinites submitted ideas for names. Seven finalists were announced on Sept. 30. Online voting for the winning name will go on until Nov 6.
"I think the Zephyr was a great name but it belongs to the former train," Wofford says. "We thought it was a great opportunity for young people to play a part in what will go down in history, so I am really excited to see what name our community chooses."
Wofford views the community's input, regarding the name and even the color scheme of the future train, as integral to staying true to the charms of the ever popular Zilker Park experience.
"Austin is an active and creative city that has seen so much exciting growth and change over the years," she says. "To many, this makes it even more important that we hold on to our favorite traditions and experiences like the Zilker train."
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Matthew McConaughey is reportedly weighing a run for Texas governor in 2022.
The Austin resident and Oscar winner has been "quietly making calls to influential people in Texas political circles, including a deep-pocketed moderate Republican and energy CEO" as he decides whether to run, according to Politico.
McConaughey said a gubernatorial run is "a true consideration" while on a March episode of Houston's "The Balanced Voice" podcast.
Although most political strategists doubt McConaughey's commitment and viability as a candidate, some are still intrigued by the possibility.
"I find it improbable, but it's not out of the question," Karl Rove, a top Republican strategist with a long history in Austin, told the political news site. He added that the big question is whether McConaughey would run as a Republican, a Democrat or an independent.
Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based GOP strategist, told Politico he's surprised McConaughey isn't being taken more seriously. "Celebrity in this country counts for a lot," he said. "It's not like some C-list actor no one likes. He has an appeal."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott plans to run for a third term and remains popular among Republican voters, 77% of whom approve of his performance as of April, according to the Texas Politics Project.
Some strategists believe an independent McConaughey run would benefit Abbott. But a recent poll from The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that McConaughey would beat Abbott, 45% to 33%, with 22% opting for someone else.
Mimi Swartz, an executive editor at Texas Monthly, mulled a McConaughey run in a recent opinion essay from the New York Times. "Texas may not be ready for a philosopher king as a candidate, much less governor," she wrote. "May the best man win, man."
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Some JuiceLand production facility workers and storefront employees are organizing to demand wage increases, better working conditions (including air conditioning in the warehouse) and pay transparency, among other asks. They are also calling on staff to strike and customers to boycott the Austin-based company until their demands are met.
JuiceLand responded on Saturday. "We are listening," the company wrote on their Instagram story. "JuiceLand crew now makes guaranteed $15 an hour or more companywide."
JuiceLand, which was founded in 2001 by Matt Shook and now has 35 locations in Austin, Houston and Dallas, acknowledged the rising cost of living across Texas and the added stress of the pandemic in an email to employees on Saturday, part of which @juicelandworkersrights shared on social media. "There's no denying that times are tough and financial security means more now than ever," the company wrote.
Organized JuiceLand workers rejected this proposal, according to a recent post on the @juicelandworkersrights Instagram account, and reiterated their demands.
"Cost of living in Austin is rising exponentially and will only continue to get worse with the tech boom," the post read. "$15 is barely a sustainable living."