Texas is not prepared for Austin-San Antonio population boom, experts say

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With the Austin and San Antonio regions expected to collectively grow from 5.2 million to 8.3 million people by 2050, Texas economic leaders and developers say investing in efficient transportation, affordable housing and sustainable water sources will be key to support that population surge.

Henry Cisneros, the former San Antonio mayor and former U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said the state is at a critical crossroads in figuring out how to manage such growth.

“Are we going to allow that [growth] to be haphazard, hectic, congested, environmentally toxic?’” Cisneros said at a Texas Tribune event Wednesday. “Or is this something that can be coordinated with integrated thinking, planning?”

San Antonio, Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston rank among the top 10 most populous cities in the country — and two-thirds of Texans live in these metro areas.

Among the most pressing issues as growth continues, event panelists said, is relying on Interstate 35 to support the majority of travel between metro areas. The Texas Department of Transportation plans to begin expanding I-35 through Austin in late 2025 — but widening the highway will ultimately only attract more cars and traffic to the region, Cisneros said.

High-speed rail would be an ideal option for the region, said Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, president and CEO of greater:SATX, an economic development organization.

But, Saucedo-Herrera added, the Austin-San Antonio region does not have influence at the state-level to support the project. Efforts to create a bullet train between Dallas and Houston have stalled for more than a decade.

“As big and grandiose as high-speed rail connectivity would be … there are additional technologies that we're not even contemplating today that we should be for an economy 50 years from now,” Saucedo-Herrera said, citing electric cars, autonomous vehicles and aircrafts such as helicopters.

As worsening climate change exacerbates water shortages in Central Texas, panelists also said expanding water supply will be key in the coming years. In 2020, San Antonio created the 150-mile Vista Ridge pipeline to increase its water supply — though soon after the launch, rural landowners reported losing water access as a result of the city’s groundwater pumping.

Still, economic leaders in Austin plan to advocate for similar water supply initiatives this coming year, according to Ed Latson, CEO of Opportunity Austin, an economic development organization.

“In our community, there's a lot of recognition that San Antonio did something very correct with planning for the water, and we have not had that kind of foresight here [in Austin],” Latson said. “We’re going to be facing bigger droughts and more extreme weather in the future, and our planning is going to have to account for it.”

Though transportation and water supply are critical across the region, panelists said access to green spaces — such as parks, trails and community gardens — has proven to be the top priority for families when choosing where to live.

Mike Kamerlander, CEO of the Greater San Marcos Partnership, said his economic development agency worked with environmental groups to identify priority green spaces that the agency will not pitch for future development projects.

“Green space is very important — let’s identify those [spaces] now,” Kamerlander said. “And then when we have companies come and want to be here, we don't have that issue moving forward.”

While green spaces are a top draw for families, panelists said affordable housing is most critical to drawing young professionals to the region. Texas home prices and rents have hit record highs in recent years, particularly in Austin.

Jonathan Packer, president and CEO of the Greater New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce, said increasing housing options is key to tackling the affordability crisis.

“You have a supply problem, and local governments need to think about supply,” Packer said.

While local governments and chambers of commerce across the region are tackling these issues, Cisneros added that Texas still lacks an overarching plan to support the rapid urbanization of the Austin-San Antonio region.

“The time is right, and the time is now,” Cisneros said. “And failure to act now — there comes a point when the spiral of congestion downward is so great that the moment passes.”

Disclosure: Greater San Marcos Partnership and Integrate have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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