South Texas Triangle Op–Ed
4. San Antonio Forward: How the Texas Triangle will connect to Northern Mexico
Dr. Alberto Gómez
5 min read
4. San Antonio Forward: How the Texas Triangle will connect to Northern Mexico

San Antonio Forward: How the Texas Triangle will connect to Northern Mexico

Texas, with a population of more than 30 million people, is the second-largest state in the nation.

Texas was also the fastest-growing state in 2021-22. Its rate of population growth is mirrored in the state’s economic momentum, with a $2.4 trillion economy. Measured among the nations of the world, Texas would be the ninth-largest economy; larger than the economy of Italy.

Texas is growing primarily in its urban areas. People flock to Texas from across the nation, and from around the world, to participate in the economic momentum that means jobs, rising incomes, growing businesses, new startups, corporate headquarters and innovative research. Texas is home to 55 Fortune 500 companies, the most of any state, and generated 650,000 new jobs in 2022. The Texas economy has transitioned from its legendary expanses of oil wells and ranches into the international arenas of technology, trade and manufacturing.

That reality is most visible in the the Texas Triangle: Dallas-Fort Worth at the northern point, Houston at the southeastern tip, and Austin-San Antonio comprising the southwestern corner. The 35 counties grouped around the three points of the Triangle account for 66% of Texas’ population and produce 77% of the state’s GDP. The Texas Triangle metros are undoubtedly an economic juggernaut.

Some urban geography specialists note the global significance of the Triangle and extend its economic power to a “Triangle Plus” network that includes Monterrey, Mexico, an industrial powerhouse and the center of an export complex in Northern Mexico. This op-ed series has discussed South Texas' connections to Monterrey and Northern Mexico.

The Texas Triangle

In May, the U.S. census announced that for the first time in American history, one state — Texas — has four cities ranked among the 10 most populous: Houston, No. 4; San Antonio, No. 7; Dallas, No. 9; and Austin recently became No. 10.  Fort Worth follows closely at No. 13. To grasp the practical significance of these rankings, it is helpful to understand how this transformation is occurring in each Triangle metropolitan area.

Dallas-Fort Worth is a mega-region of 7.8 million people spanning 13 counties. Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport has made the region a hub for 22 Fortune 500 company headquarters. The airport has 1,800 daily departures with flights to 67 international destinations.

Leading employers from the technology, biomedicine, aircraft manufacturing, higher education, logistics and finance sectors support a workforce of 4.2 million employees. That economic base attracts diverse employees from around the world. The suburban community of Coppell, for example, is home to a population that is more than 30% of Asian and Indian heritage.

Houston’s metropolitan area has a population of 7.3 million people. It has a well-defined identity as the energy capital of the world. After more than a century of establishing specialized industries in petroleum, Houston is the global focal point for petrochemical headquarters, manufacturing, research and development, refining and shipping. The Houston Ship Channel receives petroleum products from around the world and is lined with refineries to convert those raw products into usable gasoline, chemicals, gases, plastics and other petroleum byproducts, making the Port of Houston the fifth-busiest seaport by tonnage of goods shipped in the nation.

Houston's lead in the global energy transition provides evidence of entrepreneurial spirit, as many of Houston’s 5,000 energy firms invest in research and development of renewable energy and technology, including the use of hydrogen.

As other sectors have grown, Houston's economic base has diversified in recent years, including international biomedical institutions, space-related facilities and a highly dynamic small-business sector that is one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation. Houston has large populations speaking more than 145 languages and has more than 90 consulate offices.

Austin and San Antonio are 75 miles apart but function more like a Central Texas mega-region every day as the rural spaces between the two cities disappear under the surface infrastructure of fast-growing communities, commercial centers, schools, universities and roadways. Each city has its own character and economic base, but they are increasingly finding complementary roles and mutually beneficial connections.

Interstate 35 is the spine of this emerging mega-region, but land-use patterns suggest the space between parallel roads — Texas 130 on the eastern edge and U.S. 281 on the western edge — will steadily fill.

Metro Austin begins in the north, where the fastest-growing midsize city in the nation — Georgetown — joins Round Rock, Leander and Pflugerville.

The metro is anchored in Austin, which has built upon its historic economic drivers of the state government and the University of Texas to become a national center for technology, new media, biomedicine, automotive innovation, music and creative arts, and hospitality. Austin’s uniquely attractive ambiance draws technology achievers to companies such as Dell, Tesla, Google and Amazon, as well as gifted artists who project globally via South by Southwest and Austin City Limits Live.

Between 2010 and 2020, Austin is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation. The southern geography of the Austin metro includes the fastest-growing county in the nation, Hays County, and an educational hub of 37,000 students at Texas State University in San Marcos.

While Austin was the fastest-growing city in percentage rate of growth from 2010-2020, San Antonio was third behind Nashville. No geographic area in the nation has two top-10 cities with those rates of growth in such proximity.

At the Comal County line, the southern edge of the Austin metro meets the San Antonio MSA. Comal County was the second-fastest growing county in the nation between 2010 and 2020 — while its county seat, New Braunfels, was the third-fastest-growing city in the midsize category.

In 2020, San Antonio added more people, 34,000, than any other core city in the United States. Its traditional economic base of military installations and tourism has effectively diversified to include major employment generators in biomedicine, cybersecurity, automotive manufacturing, aviation technologies and professional services.

San Antonio has added significant growth nodes at Brooks City Base and at Port San Antonio, redeveloped former Air Force bases. The metro’s visitor industry is the most robust in Texas, employing more than 128,000 residents and welcoming upward of 30 million visitors a year to the River Walk,  Alamo, SeaWorld, Fiesta Texas and the UNESCO-designated Mission Reach.

This expanse of Central Texas — from Pflugerville to Floresville — is home to 5 million people. The census estimates the region will have a population of 8.3 million people by 2050. Combined with the trajectories of Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, the Texas Triangle will be a globally significant pinnacle of economic ties, cultural interest and political weight.

The Texas Triangle is one of the most promising urban complexes in the nation and the world. Nowhere else in the nation do five of the 13 most populous cities exist within 250 miles of each other — and in one state. Nowhere else in America do four such massive metro areas have such tight economic interdependence as measured by inter-city travel and trade.

Looking South

But the Texas Triangle is also part of a larger economic framework within and beyond Texas. The Triangle metros trade and interact with the other metros of Texas, including Brownsville and McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Some economists look at the map of Texas in an international context and see the emergence of a “Triangle Plus” zone that would include Monterrey, Mexico.  With more than 5 million people, Monterrey is Mexico's second-largest metropolitan area in Mexico after Mexico City. Monterrey is Mexico’s largest industrial complex, a sophisticated international producer of steel, chemicals, glass and ceramic materials, beer, automotive products and cement and building products.

It has long been described as functioning within Mexico as the combined Detroit-Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Milwaukee metros do in the U.S. Continuing the U.S. comparison, Monterrey is home to El Tecnologico de Monterrey, a highly respected engineering and technology university that is frequently referred to as the MIT of Mexico.

Monterrey’s companies engage in robust trade with the Texas Triangle cities, sending heavy volumes of imported goods by rail and air and especially on I-35 to San Antonio and points north in the United States. Monterrey is the leading city among an interconnected group of cities in northern Mexico and Texas that constitute an increasingly productive network of automotive industrial firms. After the supply-chain gridlock that proved so damaging during the pandemic, trade volumes between the Texas Triangle metros and Mexican industries centered on Monterrey will grow.

The Texas Triangle will reshape the economy, population patterns and political priorities within the state. It will also make Texas a greater force within the United States. And it will more directly link Texas to the network of great trading city-states around the world: London, Tokyo, Singapore, Frankfurt, Milan, Abu Dhabi, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Amsterdam and Shanghai.

The question is not whether the Texas Triangle will continue to grow in size and economic power. Too many magnetic factors are at work that will continue the growth: migration from other states to Texas, natural growth of in-state births, business climate and advantageous tax structure. Growth will be further powered by an abundant working-age population matched to world-class training and educational institutions; with the “legend of Texas” as fertile ground for pioneers, hard workers and entrepreneurs of all races and origins.

Our Texas Triangle leaders must go to work to shape this growth. Failure to act now will either fatally truncate this economic opportunity or negligently allow the growth to be so haphazard and uncontrolled that it will degenerate into a congested, crisis-prone, unhealthy, contentious and unlivable mess. The worst-case scenarios are grim. But Texas still has time to:

  • Build workable transportation corridors, including mass transit and rail.
  • Assure an ample mix of traditional water supplies, conservation and new water technologies to support the growth.
  • Produce affordable housing supply on a scale that meets the demand of a growing workforce.
  • Invest in pre-K-16 educational systems to assure that Texas Triangle residents can participate in the new economy jobs that place a premium on mental skills and that are the principal instruments by which we can address the vast income inequalities that have bedeviled Texas in the past.
  • Modernize the Texas power grid to make full use of the massive potential of renewables and clean energy technologies.
  • Set aside open spaces and natural preserves in creative ways, such as the Great Springs project linking the springs and greenways of Austin and San Antonio; failure to act now means that sensitive natural features will be paved over and cease to exist for public enjoyment and inspiration.
  • Integrate social policies related to health care, senior support, veterans programs, immigrant integration, homelessness and physical disabilities into our overall economic and quality-of-life priorities.
  • Make contingency preparations for severe weather events associated with climate change, such as extreme drought, more violent storms, destructive flooding and record heat.

This incredible moment for the Texas Triangle is the promise that states and cities are designed to act upon. That it is happening on our watch is our immense good fortune.  We are in position to work for it, celebrate it and create a working legacy for future generations.

Henry Cisneros is a former mayor of San Antonio and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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