Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The mayors of the four biggest cities along the San Antonio-Austin corridor said Friday that transportation remains a critical element in addressing the corridor’s continued growth and ever-worsening traffic congestion.
San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor and her counterparts from Austin, New Braunfels and San Marcos met at the San Marcos Conference Center to discuss this and other regional issues. It was part of the 2016 Austin-San Antonio Growth Summit, hosted by the Austin and San Antonio Business Journals.
Taylor, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, San Marcos Mayor Daniel Guerrero and New Braunfels Mayor Pro Tem Wayne Peters held a regional task force meeting prior to the wider summit, which consisted of a panel discussion, keynote speeches and a luncheon.
Water, economic competitiveness, and the 2017 session of the Texas Legislature also got attention at Friday’s event. But decreasing traffic congestion and developing transit alternatives along one of the fastest-growing parts in the nation was topic number one.
“I think the topic of greatest interest to everyone continues to be transportation,” Taylor told reporters following the task force meeting. “We talked about what’s happening in relation to rail, how we can work better together, how to push things along, see what solutions and options are on the table.”
Guerrero told reporters that he and his counterparts spent much time talking about potential solutions such as light rail and commuter rail.
The Lone Star Rail District (LSTAR), an envisioned private/public partnership, sustained a devastating blow when the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) opted to remove the proposal from its long-range transportation plan.
CAMPO had also asked the Texas Department of Transportation to withdraw funding for the district’s environmental impact study.
Regardless, the mayors said there is a need to have separate discussions wholly about enhancing transportation along the corridor, which continues to see an influx in population, development and commerce.
“The greatest takeaway is the probability of having another meeting with both MPOs and the mayors and having those discussions,” he added. The other MPO is the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO).
“We talked about commuter rail between the cities, and certainly Lone Star Rail is one element, but there are others,” Adler said.
Peters said there is a consensus that passenger rail between the San Antonio and Austin areas is needed, but it matters not whether it would come from Lone Star Rail or some other entity.
“We just need to get on with planning and executing,” he added.
The mayors agreed further long-range planning for transportation, and other regional issues, is imperative. Two speakers at the summit – Joel Kotkin, author of The New Geography and retired business publisher John Beddow – said the San Antonio/Austin corridor has ranked very high in population, commercial and industrial growth since 2000.
The corridor has a population of nearly 4 million people. Hays and Comal counties have been among the fastest growing counties, and San Marcos has been one of the top three growing U.S. cities in the past few years.
Kotkin and Beddow noted that, since 2001, San Antonio and Austin have increased their combined portfolio of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics-related (STEM) jobs at a rate higher than that of renowned tech hubs such as San Francisco.
Catkin said more and more people are finding that traditionally non-technology-centric career fields are diversifying their job positions to better market themselves in the 21st century.
“You can be a tech person working in real estate,” Kotkin said. “There’s been a seismic shift.”
Kotkin and Beddow said low costs of living, no state income taxes, a business-friendly regulatory environment, and being a right-to-work all have helped Texas to increase its economic competitiveness. The state keeps luring people away from California, New York and Chicago, for example.
Many of those migrating from the coasts, in their late 20s to early 40s, are drawn to the San Antonio/Austin corridor because of the business opportunities and relative ease of commuting along the corridor.
“The attraction of the corridor is that you commuters can go to either (San Antonio or Austin),” Beddow said. “I think this is a very real motivator for people to come here.”
During the panel discussion among the four mayors, Taylor said it’s the responsibility of elected officials along the corridor to convey to state leaders and private and public sector how big a part a project such as LSTAR could play in providing alternative transit.
“There’s obviously an opportunity for everyone – business leaders and others as well – to convey to everyone that this is not something we should just let slowly die,” she said. “It is an issue and there’s a sense of urgency behind it.”
There has been informal talk of developing a regional airport to serve corridor communities. Multimodal concepts position the San Antonio International Airport as a regional transportation hub, for example.
Peters said because of more pressing regional and local concerns, there has not been an opportunity for corridor officials to formally discuss such an airport.
“It needs to be a data-driven conversation, but I don’t know where that conversation leads to,” Adler said.
Taylor said because of the long-term nature of the airport idea, it is good that she and other corridor leaders begin talking about it.
“We’ve just seen some data about the incredible growth along our corridor, and if these Californians keep coming to Texas, then they’ll have to go back and see the family they’ve left behind – fly out to some places,” she said.
Taylor also said such airport discussions could connect with commuter rail talk, but that the airline industry would also have to be a partner in those conversations.
“There are examples from other regions where people take a train to the plane, and that is something we could look at,” she added.
The mayors also briefly addressed Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft, as largely helpful toward meeting transportation demands.
Uber and Lyft are working under regulations in San Antonio, New Braunfels and San Antonio. But the two TNC giants lost an election campaign in Austin to prevent their drivers from facing fingerprint-based criminal background checks. So, those companies left Austin.
However, Adler said, several smaller TNCs have arisen to fill the vacuum there.
The mayors talked about other issues of mutual interest. One is the need to convince state lawmakers, who reconvene in January, that cities must maintain an adequate level of local control.
Tools such as involuntary annexation have come under fire from some lawmakers, who want the state to limit that power. Municipalities see annexation as a flexible way to address their growth.
“We want to maintain the ability to make decisions at the local level and best meet the needs of our constituents,” Taylor said.
Securing water supplies was another topic of discussion. San Marcos just agreed to work with the growing corridor cities of Buda and Kyle and the Canyon Regional Water Authority to share water and develop long-term water solutions.
Taylor acknowledged the Vista Ridge project, a 142-mile pipeline planned to deliver water to San Antonio from Burleson County, has “caused consternation in some quarters.”
However, Taylor praised the San Antonio Water System as being a leader in seeking methods to shore up the local water supply via desalination and conservation measures.
“That has been a successful strategy for us thus far, but again, there is an opportunity for us to have a conversation about water for the region so we can be prepared,” Taylor said.
Peters echoed the local control discussion, saying each community must decide how best to its future water supply needs in such a large, growing state.
“A one-size fits all plan would be disastrous,” Peters added.
Outside the conference center, a group of people picketed the summit. Most carried signs and yelled chants critical of Vista Ridge. During the Independent Texans-led protest, picketers said private landowners and taxpayers – already facing rising property taxes and rents – are subject to eminent domain abuse while San Antonio and Austin take water away from rural communities.
San Antonian Alan Montemayor said, despite this and other concerns, both cities have a chance to lead the regional in better sustainable growth strategies.
“If San Antonio is to continue to grow, it must be smart growth. Business as usual – essentially untrammeled development- will result in increased air pollution, higher stormwater fees, more congested streets, increased taxes and lower quality of life for all the citizens of San Antonio,” he added.
The mayors also briefly discussed how the corridor cities will host a tour of policy makers from abroad next year as part of the Americas Competitiveness Exchange on Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
“I think we’re all thrilled with the opportunity to highlight this region through this program,” Taylor told reporters.
Top image: Traffic at the intersection below the Loop 1604 to Highway 281 interchange. Photo by Scott Ball.