Transportation the Talk of Austin-San Antonio Growth Summit

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Rendering of a Lone Star Rail (LSTAR) stop in San Marcos. Courtesy of LSRD.

Rendering of a Lone Star Rail (LSTAR) stop in San Marcos. Courtesy of LSRD.

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.

San Marcos Mayor Daniel Guerrero

San Marcos Mayor Daniel Guerrero

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.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler

Austin Mayor Steve Adler

“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 Ivy Taylor addresses the crowd with news on ride share. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Mayor Ivy Taylor addresses the crowd at a recent TechBloc event. File photo by Scott Ball.

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.

District 9 Councilman Joe Krier

Councilmember Joe Krier (D9)

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.

Related Stories:

Coverage of last year’s event: I-35 Corridor Growing Without Much Planning

Lone Star Rail Officials Ask VIA Board for $500,000

Lone Star Rail District Seeks $500K from San Antonio

San Antonio’s Annexation Debate

UTSA Water Forum: SAWS CEO Says Vista Ridge Project On Track

16 thoughts on “Transportation the Talk of Austin-San Antonio Growth Summit

  1. “[Austin, San Antonio and metro areas in between]…realizing that the key to becoming globally competitive lies in collaboration rather than competition…” That’s key not only to good economics, but management of shared resources, …like water.

  2. The area in between San Antonio and Austin is not “metropolitan,” but suburban sprawl at its worst. Our downtown in SA has over 100 vacancies…we are a hollow core city in desperate need of urban revitalization and sustainable infrastructure.

  3. The last time we traveled by train, the Amtrak had to stop and give right of way to freight trains. Is that still the case and will the commuter trains have to do the same? Also, other folks on the train said the tracks in Texas were by far the worst they’d experienced.

    • Yes, it can still be the case with Amtrak. But no, that will not be the case with Lonestar Rail. A decent part of the expense of the project is diverting a majority of the freight rail so this can be a passenger line run to a timetable.

    • The Lone Star Rail Project includes diverting freight rail to a new corridor east of the existing corridor from Waco (I think) to south of downtown San Antonio.

  4. I think the key to making this successful is that the travel time from downtown Austin to downtown SA needs to be under 2 hours and the cost of a ticket needs to be less than the cost of the gas it would take to drive (i.e., under $10). Otherwise people will just continue to drive. If they cannot design such a system, it will be better not to waste money trying to build it.

  5. I support it as a vital link to get the cities focused on creating their own networks within the cities themselves that would then connect to the greater regional line. Philly is the same distance from NYC, but it’s just car suburbs in between and same distance between Milwaukee/Chicago and Miami/West Palm Beach – they have rail connections.

    Minn/St Paul (10 miles) is building their lines out into the suburbs, as are DFW (30 miles) and the LA region, and Bay Area (San Fran/San Jose (45 miles) – although the Tampa to Orlando (80 miles) route was probably permanently killed when Gov Scott turned down the money in 2011/12). It will just cost more in the future when it’s needed more.

  6. This is nothing new. 30 year old rhetoric. Texans wanted a parking lot on I-35 when they voted to give all the money to overblown highway projects instead of something more progressive and God forbid smarter and more sustainable in the long term. It also sickens me to look at the ridiculous expressways flying high in San Antonio. Short term thinking and a pathetic lack of vision is an endemic problem in all of Texas when it comes to something other than highways and byways.

  7. I agree we should absolutely move forward with planning for commuter rail (unfortunately it’s not high speed however it sets us in that trajectory) transportation between our cities. In the 60’s people thought Charles Anderson was nuts to build loop 1604 around the city. What vision that we all benefit from today with our less congested SA highways.

  8. Lone star rail has milked taxpayers for millions over the past 14 years. Their scheme depended on Union Pacific handing them their tracks – in exchange for a new multi billion dollar system. The problem is, UP never was that interested, didn’t really want to give up the network they need to service their customer base and Lone Star has no funding. The optimistic ridership from LS is a joke and even with exorbitant ticket pricing , loses a boat load of money. Would you pay $60 each way to go back and forth? I thought so.

    Campo board analyzed this adnausem and came to the conclusion: RUN! This 1800’s technology is obsolete in the face of self driving cars and modern roadway coordinating systems that will reduce traffic congestion, driver error and accidents. Nowhere has rail made a significant dent in traffic congestion or made a profit – NOWHERE. We’ll look back in 10 years and say: “what were we thinking to even consider this archaic, overpriced scheme”. No money + no significant ridership + mediocre service = LOSER

    If you want to play with trains, buy a Lionel – it works better and is cheaper.

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