Austin metro area surpasses 2 million residents

The Austin metro area is officially home to more than 2 million people, according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers released Thursday.

From July 2014 to July 2015, the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area — which includes Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties — grew from 1,943,465 to 2,000,860, making it the fastest-growing metropolitan area with a population over 1 million for the fifth year in a row.

“That of course won’t be news to anyone who lives here,” said Austin’s city demographer, Ryan Robinson. “We’ve become so accustomed to that very high level of population growth being part of our daily existence.”

But having crossed the 2 million person threshold, it remains to be seen how the Austin metro area will respond to the challenges that come with this explosive population growth.

“We’re not the small, sleepy college town we once were,” Robinson said. “We’re a big metro area, and we have the problems that come with being a big metro area.”

Those problems aren’t limited to Austin’s city limits. Outlying areas and counties in the metro area have also begun to feel the boons and challenges of population growth.

In the past, city officials prided themselves on the fact that Austin was the last city in the country to go into the economic recession of the late 2000s and the first one out. Its creative sector — bolstered by artists, software engineers and lawyers as well as the real estate developers who moved here to build housing for the others — led to a diversified economy less prone to the fluctuations of the energy industry that capriciously looms over other Texas metro areas like Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.

“We’re hard-pressed to see that in Austin,” Robinson said. “What we’re seeing is a validation of the fact that Austin has by far the most diversified economy in the state.”

Population and problems

But that booming economy has also led to unprecedented problems, chief among them traffic and affordability.

“Austin is a phenomenal place to live,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “It’s an exciting dynamic city with a great quality of life, but not for everybody.”

Increased interest in Austin has contributed to a spike in home prices and property taxes in the area that have priced many out of many formerly affordable neighborhoods in the city. Newcomers have added more cars on the road that clog traffic in and out of the city during rush hour.

What’s more, longtime residents looking for more affordable living have left Austin in droves to relocate in outlying cities and counties, contributing to urban sprawl.

Three nearby counties — Hays, Williamson and Comal, which is just south of the Austin metro area on the way to San Antonio — were among the top 20 fastest-growing counties in the country. That growth, Robinson said, could partly be due to internal movement away from Austin.

Outlying issues

But the population increase has also brought problems for those outer areas.

For example, while the Austin school district has seen a recent decline in student enrollment (by more than 3,000 students from 2012-13 to 2015-16), overall the 83,688-student district is still up 3 percent from a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the Hays school district has exploded in size with 18,602 students overall, a 76 percent increase from the 10,565 students it had in 2005-06, according to Texas Education Agency and Hays school district officials.

Three of the Hays district’s elementary schools are over their stated capacity. That number is expected to increase to seven schools by 2018. The district expects to reach 20,000 students in 2017, and, in 10 years, it expects to have added more than 8,000 new students.

The district has started planning for a third high school to ease crowding at its other two traditional campuses.

“There are challenges that come with growth,” said Tim Savoy, a Hays school district spokesman. “I know there are school districts across the state that are losing students and have to think about closing schools. If I had to pick, I would rather be in the position we are in now.”

Bastrop County is also starting to feel growing pains.

The demand for housing in the Lost Pines region is set to spike in the next several years as housing costs continue to skyrocket in Austin, according to two housing studies the Bastrop Economic Development Corp. commissioned last fall. Bastrop and other areas southeast of Austin make up 6 percent of the area’s housing market, the studies found. By 2025, they are expected to make up 20 percent.

West of Austin, along Lake Travis, the growth can be felt acutely during rush hour on RM 620. Line of cars snake through the Hill Country from Texas 71 in the south to U.S. 183 in the north.

Average daily traffic counts increase by an estimated 2 percent every year on RM 620, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. In 2015, TxDOT estimated that 49,600 cars passed through the intersection of RM 620 at Bee Cave Parkway every day. Officials estimate that number will jump to 73,700 by 2035.

“Obviously transportation is a huge issue out here,” said Larry Harlan, a Lakeway resident who joined a TxDOT subcommittee on traffic in the area. “The traffic is increasing simply because the areas that are undeveloped are becoming developed. … I’ve heard the common concept that if we didn’t build roads out here, people won’t move here, and I think it’s archaic. People want to move to an attractive area, and it’s overriding the transportation system.”

Austin’s mayor said the City Council is trying to address many of the problems that come with the population boom. Adler pointed to discussions about what roads and highways to fund, its brokering of the controversial Pilot Knob development — which will create hundreds of new affordable housing units in South Austin — and its participation in the “Smart City” challenge that could net Austin $50 million in grants to come up with transportation solutions.

For Robinson, the demographer, the most significant thing about surpassing the 2 million person mark is that it shows Austin is in a new league, one that requires more and better infrastructure.

Adler said the area needs to make smart decisions, try innovative ideas and invest in what’s needed to create that infrastructure.

“Ready or not, here it comes,” Adler said.

And it’s likely to keep coming.

“Population growth is being driven by very healthy job creation in addition to a very high quality of life,” Robinson said. “The crest is still somewhere out there in the future. I don’t know how many years we have left, but it looks like we have a couple.”

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