In 2013, as the city of San Marcos was recognized as the nation's fastest-growing city by the U.S. Census Bureau for the first time, journalist and entrepreneur Melissa Jewett knew a change was coming.
Central Texas earned a reputation as one of the fastest-growing hubs in the country throughout the mid-2010s as newcomers from near and far flocked and real estate prices soared. As the area began experiencing growing pains, Jewett saw an opportunity. She formed online news site San Marcos Corridor News to serve not just San Marcos, but nearly the entire I-35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio.
"I have been in San Marcos for 16 years and I have just watched tremendous growth... and so I just decided that we needed to tap into that audience," Jewett said. "I wanted something that could try to cover a regional area and not just a local area, even though that's what I started out thinking about. And during those eight months, it finally hit me upside the head that it's growing like crazy."
While San Marcos' Hays County exploded by over 50% to become the fastest-growing county in Texas from 2010-2020, Austin was heralded as a "boomtown" by new transplant Elon Musk and the thousands of techies that soon followed. The Texas capital city-turned Californian haven was the fastest-growing large metro in the country in 2020, according to the Census Bureau.
San Antonio is on the south end of the I-35 metro that could be. (Shutterstock)
Just an hour and a half south down a short, traffic-heavy I-35 strip lies San Antonio, a city whose growth isn't far behind its more hipster counterpart. San Antonio and nearby New Braunfels were once set apart by swaths of countryside; now, the two are nearly connected and are both earning spots on fast-growing lists.
With all of the past decade's expansion, some believe that Austin and San Antonio will one day merge into a metroplex that rivals Dallas-Fort Worth. Some, including Jewett and state demographer Lloyd Potter, say it's already happening.
Matthew McCafferty, a real estate developer with Brookfield Properties, said he remembers when Blanco Vista, their master-planned community in San Marcos, was one of the first in the area. Now, small subdivisions dot nearly the entire corridor. McCafferty said Austin bedroom town Buda has been nearly completely bought out by new developments, while New Braunfels currently has a massive 6,000-unit master-planned community in the works.
There are still some obstacles before the area becomes a metro with a catchy nickname—ASA (or Austintonio?). In their latest study published last month, Austin's Urban Land Institute discussed several needs, including better public transportation and high-density walkable neighborhoods, if Austin is to have sustainable growth and increase affordability.
ULI's Paulette Gibbins said that extends to I-35 corridor growth—the area's cities will need to emphasize "transit-oriented development" and vastly improve travel time between the two hubs before it can experience healthy growth.
McCafferty said a public rail system and money funneled from the U.S. infrastructure bill could help the two cities grow together.
"That's a heck of a drive in the morning (and) I think that that's the biggest constraint between the two cities," McCafferty said, referring to the hour and half drive between the city centers (without traffic).
But even with lightning-speed rail to connect the two cities, the region wouldn't be cohesive without "live, work and play" cities in between, Gibbins said.
"Having job opportunities so people can work near where they live, is also going to have a great effect on the (metro) overall because otherwise, you end up where it's really just a split between the two cities," Gibbins said. "The whole area needs to be utilized."
New Braunfels is bleeding into San Antonio as the area grows together. (Shutterstock)
That's where organizations like the Greater San Marcos Partnership come in. San Marcos residents tend to grit their teeth when their city is referred to as a commuter city for Austin or San Antonio, and Jewett said some officials are in denial about the area's imminent growth.
But San Marcos has become an economic powerhouse of its own—the partnership helped usher in a 1 million-square-foot Amazon warehouse in 2020, and the GSMP's Jason Giulietti said the area's job growth and labor force each grew by around 45% from 2008 to 2018. The city's resident 36,000-strong university, Texas State University, is also quickly developing into a tier-one research institution.
Some families already brave the commute between the two Central Texas hubs each morning—but as residents and companies get priced out of Austin and San Antonio city centers, they're turning to the in-betweener cities. According to ApartmentData.com's November Market Line Report, the San Marcos/Kyle/Buda area has been the hottest of Greater Austin's 11 submarkets over the last three months.
"If you think about as a large employer, choosing a site in San Marcos, Kyle or New Braunfels gives you the ability to pull from the Austin market as far as jobs and... the San Antonio market as well," McCafferty said. "I think that's going to become a lot more appealing."
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President Joe Biden signed the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law Monday, which is expected to provide funding for local public transit, roads and the airport.
As a whole, Texas is expected to receive more than $3.3 billion in public transportation support and about $35 billion over five years for roads, bridges, pipes, ports, broadband access and other projects.
Here's how the federal dollars are expected to be distributed in that state:
- $1 billion per year in additional funding for project development, construction and improvements to roads and bridges over five years.
- 30% pay increase for bus drivers
- 13% pay increase for mechanics
- $1.2 billion for Texas airports
- $408 million for electric vehicle charging network
- $100 million for broadband
- $53 million for wildfire protection
- $42 million for cyber-attack protection
The public transportation dollars could mean Project Connect, the $7.1 billion mass transit plan voters approved last year to pay partly with tax-payer money, secures the federal funds needed. The project, which would add two light rail lines and an underground tunnel, has been hoping to secure federal funding to pay for at least 45% of it.
While the exact amount of dollars per city has not been allocated, earlier this month, CapMetro said it was analyzing the infrastructure bill's full budgetary impact.
Our nation's leaders approved $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. It supports sustained CapMetro ops & maintenance, & is significant in transit funding for #ProjectConnect expansion program. Thx to congressional leaders & for keeping it on track for @POTUS signature.— Capital Metro (@Capital Metro) 1636204600
Bob Kaufman, the chief communications officer for TxDOT, told KVUE that additional funding could help Texas move forward with projects in the state's 10-year planning document. The I-35 expansion project, a $4.9 billion plan by the Texas Department of Transportation to widen Interstate 35, is part of that plan.
Austin's airport also has expansion plans that may anticipate federal funds. Leaders at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport are looking into improvements for the Barbara Jordan Terminal and a new 20 gate concourse.
Chandra Bhat, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said investment in public transportation is on the low side in Texas. In this year's infrastructure report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Texas roads a D+.
"I think investments in roads will continue and should continue," Bhat said. "But as our population explodes, I think it just behooves us to be investing in other modes of transportation also."
Want scooter riding services out of the 'Lime'light?
Scoobi, a Pittsburgh-based moped rental service, is bringing 200 of their vehicles to downtown for on-demand use starting on Tuesday, with the service fully functional by Friday.
The service is the latest to come to town in an attempt to alleviate downtown traffic and limited parking. According to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, Austin-area commuters endured over 48,000 hours of traffic even in a COVID-stricken 2020.
Scoobi scooters are ever-so-slightly more expensive than industry-leading Lime scooters, but they have the leg up in storage with a lockable trunk, phone mount and charger included in each bike for the mobile professional or student. Like electric scooter apps, the fully-electric mopeds are also designed to combat CO2 usage: according to Scoobi's press release, Pittsburgh riders have saved over 388,000 pounds of CO2 in the 353,000 miles traveled with the service since its founding in 2018.
"Our mission is to provide an efficient, alternative mode of transportation for Austin's residents and visitors in order for them to experience the vibrant culture of the city in a fun and sustainable way," Scoobi CEO Mike Moran said in the release.
The self-proclaimed "People's Moped" has reached an agreement with the city that allows free metered parking for all of the 200 street-legal mopeds. The bikes will be placed in key areas around downtown and can be tracked through a GPS on the Scoobi app. Mopeds can be reserved for 10 minutes free of charge before a $2 unlocking fee and 36 cents per-minute riding fee are added. Scoobi charges 18 cents a minute while paused in the app, and discount packages are also available.
The company will join industry leaders Lime and Bird, sit-down scooter app Wheels and Capital Metro's MetroBike service in providing rental options downtown. The city has lost most of the 14 scooter services that littered Austin's streets back in 2018, but as of January, 5,100 Lime scooters, and 3,250 Bird scooters and 1,000 sit-down scooters are still parked downtown. Lime has also implemented a pilot program with 500 e-bikes.
There has been turbulence in the scooter/rental vehicle's short existence, including a pandemic-driven low of just 10,551 monthly scooter rides in April 2020. But after a mass exodus of rental scooter companies, Austinites took over 343,000 trips in May 2021 alone. MetroBike services are still much lower but reached a record high of over 17,000 in the same time period.
Nationwide, scooters and other micromobility vehicles have cropped up in even the most traffic-congested cities like New York. One perk of Scoobi is that it provides two different-sized helmets in its lockbox—an effort that may combat safety concerns around head injuries from e-scooter accidents.
The mopeds can go up to 30 miles per hour and have a battery life that lasts up to 30 miles. They're street legal, so they won't be allowed on bike lanes or sidewalks. Users must be at least 18 years old and have a valid drivers' license.
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