San Antonio and Austin Are Converging Along I-35. Time to Pay Attention.
San Antonio picked up a little more than 24,000 new residents in the 12-month period ending July 1, 2017, making ours the fastest-growing city in the country, according to a new U.S. Census report. That’s a lot of people who’ve been turning the wrong way on one-way streets downtown, and who are still shocked that a major American city shuts down to drink for 10 days every April. That’s 465 new arrivals every week who initially failed to understand that the dominance of a single grocery-store chain – well, it’s really for the best.
That’s thousands of people who still mutter to themselves at work, “Why don’t they just say what they mean?” But if they’re having a few adjustment problems, what about the rest of us? The Census report is one more reason to fret about worsening traffic congestion, the shortage of affordable housing, older homeowners being squeezed out of their homes by spiraling property tax bills – and how, at the moment, nobody has any good solutions to these problems. But don’t complain about the newcomers too loudly. They’re flocking to San Antonio because of its jobs, low cost of living and quality of life. Also, consider this: we’re not Austin. Not yet, anyway. Austin landed at twelfth on the list with a population gain of 12,500. It's been confronting a full-blown affordable-housing crisis for years now. And if they’ve figured how to ease the city’s traffic gridlock, they’re being very quiet about it. Austin almost certainly would have taken in more new residents last year if it weren’t for these problems – after all, its economy continues to rock and it’s still cooler than most other Texas cities. But the Census report also shows that San Antonio’s and Austin’s strengths – another way of saying the regional economy – are luring new residents not just to their doorsteps but to smaller cities clustered along the I-35 corridor. San Antonio led the nation in raw population gains. But these smaller towns dominate the second Census list – of fastest-growing cities as a percentage of population. New Braunfels was second, with a population increase of 8 percent, Pflugerville third (6.5 percent), Georgetown sixth (5.4 percent) and Cedar Park thirteenth (4.2 percent). The report leaves little doubt that the San Antonio and Austin areas are both growing like crazy, and that they’re converging along the I-35 corridor. In the not-too-distant future, we’ll be talking about the region as we do the Metroplex in North Texas. Speaking of which: Dallas and Fort Worth were third and fourth on the list of biggest population gains, and satellite cities McKinney and Flower Mound showed up on the list of biggest percentage increases. The potential for a mega-region with Austin at its north pole and San Antonio at its south pole is huge, both in its capacity to create jobs and its cultural and higher-education opportunities. But it’ll take regional planning and coordination, especially in transportation, to reap the benefits. The current problem on the I-35 corridor is lack of attention. Elected officials in San Antonio and Austin are wrestling with problems within their city limits, including the big basic ones like transportation and affordability. But they’re doing so largely to the exclusion of any kind of regional forethought. In 2015, the Lone Star Rail District, the agency that was supposed to plan and build a commuter rail line between Austin and San Antonio, finally had its moment after 12 years. The idea of a rail connection caught on with local politicians and the public. There seemed to be genuine interest and excitement – until the district revealed in early 2016 that there was no way Union Pacific would agree to a make-or-break rail-sharing agreement. Lone Star Rail turned out to have been a fantasy, and the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization effectively killed the district in late 2016 by removing the rail agency from its funding plan. At roughly the same time that Lone Star exploded, the idea of a regional airport between the two cities – a South-Central Texas version of the mighty DFW – rose and quickly plummeted. That’s because it was driven more by frustrations with San Antonio International Airport, namely the lack of direct flights to key cities for SA companies, than an actual need for a gigantic airport somewhere around San Marcos. Also, nobody in Austin – which is investing heavily in Austin-Bergstrom International Airport – seemed to realize we were even talking down here about a regional airport. Over the past couple of years, there’s been almost no public talk about how to efficiently shuttle tourists, workers, doctors and nurses, students and others between the San Antonio and Austin areas. Neither have we talked much about how to improve air travel throughout the region. Officials can’t let a couple of busts stop them from planning for the inevitable hook-up between the San Antonio and Austin metro areas.