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Texas-size support for thoughtful regional planning


SAN MARCOS, Texas -- Recently, some 600 government, business and civic leaders from the explosively growing 22-county Austin-San Antonio corridor swarmed into this little college town for a futures conference.

No single mayor or county official was in charge. The debate on fast-mounting transportation, water and air quality problems was officially unofficial.

But this many people meeting to focus on a corridor linking two major metro regions is new here. Maybe we Americans are starting to emulate citistate alliances already making headway in Europe.

Rotterdam and Antwerp, with two of Europe's largest ports, have formed an alliance across the Dutch-Belgian border. Barcelona has forged a strong economic triangle with Toulouse and Montpelier in France. Lyon is partnering with Turin and Geneva in what they're calling the Alpine Diamond region; cross-enrollment in the universities is already offered and there are plans for rapid rail connections.

Yet none of those regions has the gravity of challenges facing Austin-San Antonio. With an estimated 2.8 million people, up 400,000 since 1990, central Texas is among the five fastest-growing areas in the United States. The region's population is projected to double by 2020.

Finding housing and creating transportation systems for the added millions is no simple matter. And today's central Texas spells globalization writ large. The two centers -- Austin with its high-tech prowess and San Antonio sitting astride the fast-rising tide of NAFTA trade -- are vivid examples of merging developed and developing world commerce.

Interstate 35, the area's principal north-south artery, is choked with trucks and cars. Its traffic volume is up 754 percent since 1960. Truck loadings at Laredo have soared from 20,000 a month pre-NAFTA to 100,000 a month last year.

Between Austin and San Antonio, I-35 is absorbing Texas' fastest traffic increases. It's become the state's deadliest stretch of highway. Without alternatives, it will have to be expanded, through Austin, by 16 lanes by 2040 -- at stratospheric cost, butchering the landscape of one of America's most attractive state capitals.

A highly professional "State of the Region Report," created by Ross Milloy and Scott Polikov of the Greater Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council, spelled out the issues for the San Marcos conferees. They learned, for example, that the cost of new infrastructure (schools, roads, water and waste systems, parks, police, fire) to accommodate the next 25 years' population growth may be as high as $16.5 billion, or $8,900 a person, paid mostly by existing residents.

Making matters worse, the region's air is being degraded even while water quality becomes a mounting concern.

Urban smudge

Southwest Texas State University Professor Jim Kimmel paints a grim scenario if the corridor keeps constructing mostly single-family houses on large lots. Couple that with strip commercial and office complexes on major roadways, Mr. Kimmel says, and get ready for urban smudge: By 2040, there'll be a 13-mile wide swath of continuous development, running 80 miles from Austin to San Antonio.

New partnerships, and radically increased cooperation, are necessary, local officials told the conference.

Leaders of two other fast-growth U.S. regions -- Charlotte and San Diego -- spoke to their Texas counterparts via video clips. They urged new forms of collaborative regional leadership that "hears" all voices. Pressure must be placed on universities to take a more active role.

Mass transit advocates

The Charlotte and San Diego leaders also advised the Texans to strengthen their downtowns and to lessen auto dependence by installing light and commuter rail lines. Flying in from Chattanooga, City Council Chairman David Crockett urged nothing less than a fully "sustainable" industrial-transportation-transit agenda for the future.

Would the 600 assembled citizens of ornery independent "Don't Mess With Texas" agree? Yes, it turned out. An on-the-spot poll by Carlos Arce of NuStats International showed overwhelming majorities for region-wide planning for better land use, passenger rail and water system improvements. Tax-base sharing and higher education planning enlisted big margins.

Bottom line: The poll suggests a stronger base of support for thoughtful, region-wide approaches, even strong land-use controls and large investments in mass transit alternatives, than most politicians in Texas -- and I'd guess nationally -- even imagine.

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 5/18/98

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