A Blueprint for Texas' Metropolitan Future

Texas in the 21st century is a story of steep urban growth, whether you are measuring population, jobs, personal incomes, gross domestic product, or local tax receipts. Six of the nation’s 15 fastest-growing cities are in Texas, and while COVID-19 has taken a toll, the early signals all point to a robust recovery. But rapid growth and recovery create their own challenges: rising home costs, traffic congestion, pollution, income inequality, and strains on infrastructure that can put a ceiling on growth or even abruptly reverse it.

The pandemic showed Texans how thinly spread our health services are, and as devastating as last month’s blackouts were, they could have been much worse—ERCOT reports we were “seconds and minutes” away from an even more catastrophic failure that could have plunged the whole state into darkness for months. Even Governor Greg Abbott agrees that road-building alone can no longer suffice to meet Texas’ transportation needs.

Texas’ business-friendly climate has ensured its economic vitality until now. But to reach the next level, that approach needs to be combined with a slate of policies that will allow Texas to consolidate and preserve its gains, while systematically addressing its weaknesses. Texas’ future will turn on new knowledge industries like software, fin-tech, aerospace, renewables and tech-driven manufacturing. And virtually all of them are concentrated in its major cities and their surrounding suburbs, where the vast majority of Texans live. Deep investments in both their physical and human infrastructure are required, to ensure that they will continue to be places where companies and talent want to locate, compete, and prosper —and where everyone has opportunities.

In an unprecedented collaboration, our three institutions – the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT-Austin, the SMU-Bush Institute Economic Growth Initiative in Dallas, and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston – have created Texas’ first-ever “metropolitan blueprint” for a more prosperous and sustainable future. In doing so, we tasked more than 50 of the state’s leading practitioners, policymakers, and business leaders, from every part of the state and both sides of the political aisle, to help address Texas’ most pressing economic development, housing, and infrastructure concerns. Three presiding principles inform our conclusions:

First, we must invest equitably in Texans. While Texas’ low-tax/low-regulation environment has been a powerful business attractor, too many Texans are being left behind. We need to close the digital divide, provide greater upskilling opportunities, and provide more support for our home-grown business startups.

Second, we should empower local civic innovation. Looking ahead, the challenges facing the state’s metro areas—outdated land use regulations, rising housing prices, homelessness, and more—vary tremendously across the state’s counties, cities and towns. Local leaders must be granted the authority to craft, fund and implement the policies that best address their needs. But in a sharp departure from the kind of local, conservative governance that Texans have historically favored, state legislators introduced ten bills in 2015 and 15 in both 2017 and 2019 that aimed to cap the property taxes local governments can levy, the numbers of permits they can issue, the bonds they can float, and the user and linkage fees they can collect. Texas should be enabling local problem-solving, not blocking it.

Third, we should increase and improve public-private-nonprofit partnerships statewide. Rather than emulating the centralized, top-down governance models of New York or California, Texas should foster stronger collaborations between its state, county and municipal governments, and its private and nonprofit sectors. Texas can become a national leader in advancing cross-sector, market-driven solutions to its pressing metropolitan challenges.

Big metros, like big machines, require constant maintenance or they will stall. Addressing Texas’s urgent metropolitan issues decisively will not weaken Texas, but strengthen it. Our future depends on it.

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