If any further measures are needed to prove that Austin and San Antonio and everyone in between are going to be part of one vast metro area, it was visible in San Marcos on Thursday at the annual Growth Summit sponsored by the Business Journals in both cities.
Last year’s audience reached 350 and nary a word was uttered about I-35 congestion, declining air quality, or the possibility of funding the Lone Star Rail District and introducing regional commuter rail service, known as LSTAR, in the coming years.
How things can change in the span of one year. The conference center at the San Marcos Embassy Suites filled to the walls with 600 people for the Thursday luncheon program that featured San Marcos Mayor Daniel Guerrero and his two featured guests, Austin Mayor Steve Adler and San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor.
This year’s conversation was all about transportation alternatives, principally LSTAR but also a growing conversation about long-term planning for a regional airport to serve a metro area of more than 6 million people by 2050 as two of the fastest growing major U.S. cities steadily grow closer.
Regional cooperation until now has been largely limited to speechifying, but there is a rising sense that Austin and San Antonio, which both expect to grow by more than 1 million people over the next 30-35 years, are realizing that the key to becoming globally competitive lies in collaboration rather than competition.
On the ground evidence demonstrating that newfound realization is not yet visible, but the conversation seems to be warming.
“Mayor Taylor and I have seen each other every eight weeks since I was elected (in Dec. 2014), heck, we even know each other’s spouses,” said Austin Mayor Adler, the first of the two to speak. “That’s important to the entire Austin-San Antonio corridor, not just our two cities.”
Adler said regional leaders need to be thinking in terms of the next 40 years.
“There is no question this corridor will grow into one metro area in 10 years,” he said. “The truth is, there are very few gaps now on I-35. Eventually, the metro area could reach from Waco to South Texas. We need to move beyond an era of competition and into an era of collaboration.”
A key area for improving connections, he said, is transportation. Raising the opportunity to finally plan and build commuter rail service between the two cities with stops all along the way, Adler said, “Austin is ready to have those data-driven conversations. Imagine what it would be like a hop a train in downtown Austin and in an hour be standing in front of the Alamo?”
Mayor Taylor and City Council are poised to approve the 2016 fiscal year budget next Thursday that will include $500,000 from the City to help fund LSTAR planning. Bexar County has already approved $500,000 in its budget and VIA is considering a similar line item.
“In order to benefit more from all this growth we are going to have to think regionally,” Mayor Taylor said, adding that the two cities are sharing their respective long-term comprehensive planning efforts, known as SA Tomorrow in San Antonio, and Imagine Austin in that city. “It’s no longer San Antonio versus Austin, but San Antonio and Austin.”
Mayor Taylor said she would see Mayor Adler again in Austin Friday morning, and the two will have the opportunity to meet with their counterparts from around Texas when the Texas Municipal League stages its annual conference in San Antonio Sept. 23-25.
Taylor told the audience that San Antonio is focused on redeveloping its downtown and surrounding neighborhoods and doing it without displacing longtime residents, or by building a city where average citizens can no longer afford to live in the urban core.
“At the risk of touching a sore spot, we’re learning from Austin about the importance of affordable housing,” Taylor said, a clear reference to Austin’s steeper cost of living, which has grown as quickly as its population and tech-driven economy. Taylor said San Antonio is trying to plan for better growth in the suburbs, which is inevitable, but also working to preserve the inner city’s character and quality.
“Some people do prefer mixed-income neighborhoods versus the suburban model,” she said.
Mayor Taylor was the first, but not the last, to raise the possibility of regional airport services.
“I’d like to go on the record to say there could be benefits to a regional airport,” Taylor said.
After the mayors spoke, the two Business Journal editors, Colin Pope from the Austin publication, and Tony Quesada from San Antonio, moderated a panel of speakers that included City Councilmember Joe Krier (D9); Pike Powers, the CEO of Austin-based Pike Powers Group; Denise Trauth, president of Texas State University; and Scott Polikov, president of Gateway Planning.
It was especially interesting to hear Krier speak enthusiastically about the prospects of LSTAR. In his appearance on last year’s panel, he extolled the virtues of unfettered driving at high speed on the SH 130 toll road, but this year he acknowledged the days of seemingly unlimited Texas Department of Transportation highway funding are history.
“Shame on us if we don’t build the Lone Star project. I-35 is going to become a parking lot in a few years,” Krier said. He cited Lone Star Rail and a regional airport that might take area cities 25 years to bring about when asked to name his two major transportation recommendations.
Asked how quickly LSTAR could be brought into service, Krier quipped that he wanted to ride it before being buried in the Texas State Cemetery. “You could be on it by 2020,” he predicted.
Powers said the two cities could become a “globally competitive marketplace” if they can overcome traditional differences and work together as a single regional economy. He even suggested the cities could grow together in such force they one day might host the Olympics Games, which caused one person at my table to remark, “That means we’ll lose money.”
Trauth stressed the importance of workforce development and called on business leaders to press the Texas Legislature for more higher education infrastructure spending.
Polikov, an advocate for multimodal transit and walkable neighborhoods, stressed the growing importance of urban amenities for companies built and run by people under 35 who are not going to locate operations and new jobs in the region unless their workers can enjoy the lifestyles they deem as essential.
“Mixed income and mixed-use are two different and important things, and we need to bring both together in building better neighborhoods and cities,” he said.
With that, the 600 attendees dispersed for the return drives to their respective cities, each jumping in a vehicle for the return experience on I-35.
*Featured/top image: Rendering of a Lone Star Rail (LSTAR) stop in San Marcos. Courtesy of LSRD.
Coverage of last year’s event: I-35 Corridor Growing Without Much Planning