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Where Austin’s Economy, Transit and Population Are Heading

austin at sunsetAustin’s population and economy are expected to grow rapidly over the next two years, putting added pressure on the problems of mobility and affordability.

That’s the rough takeaway from Tuesday’s Angelos Economic Forecast held at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, a Central Texas-focused event that tries to peer into the region’s future.

Hosted by Angelos Angelou, the principal executive officer of Austin-based economic development firm AngelouEconomics Inc., the annual event presented Austin as a booming city with some serious challenges to tackle — especially as the area creates a high number of low-paying jobs.

And as for the increased calls for a light rail system or other solutions to the area’s traffic woes, Angelou tossed in his own suggestion: a subway system.

Angelou predicted Austin will add 70,000 residents in 2016 and another 60,000 in 2017, pushing the region’s population further above the 2 million mark it crossed earlier this year. Statewide, Angelou said Texas is expected to add 490,000 residents in 2016, upping its population to 27.9 million.

That population growth comes in the wake of a big year for Texas and Austin-bound migration. Statewide, 512,000 people either moved to Texas or were born here for growth of 1.9 percent. Austin’s population grew by 3.4 percent with the addition of 67,000 people, putting it among the fastest growing large cities in the U.S.

Angelou predicted the economy would add 32,100 jobs in 2016 and 28,300 jobs in 2017, a two-year job growth rate of 6.3 percent.

Job growth was robust in both Texas and Austin in 2015. Statewide job rolls increased by 243,000, a rise of 2.1 percent. In Austin, employers added 33,500 new jobs for 3.9 percent growth, nearly double the state rate.

But Angelou expressed concern that some of the fastest-growing job sectors, such as leisure and hospitality, don’t produce high enough wages. As a result of fast job growth in lower-paying industries, the average wage for new jobs created in Austin has been declining since 2010 and dipped below the average wage for all Austin jobs in 2013.

“What concerns me is that a lot of this job growth is in lower-wage jobs, both in Austin and the rest of Texas,” said Angelou, noting how on-paper job growth doesn’t necessarily translate into wage growth for the region. “We have to look at ways to change this dynamic.”

Angelou also touched on some other challenges facing Austin, primarily affordability and transportation. On housing affordability, Angelou noted that while the city of Austin has absorbed the largest amount of the region’s recent population growth, the second-fastest growing “city” in the area is not a city at all. Rather, 35 percent of the area’s new residents who arrived between 2009-2014 live in unincorporated areas surrounding Austin-area municipalities.

“A lot of this has to do with affordability. This is a concern,” said Angelos. “We need to be sure that we look at public policy to provide incentives for more affordable housing options in Austin. It is really a problem.”

And, as residents move to unincorporated areas further away from the center of the metro region in search of more affordable housing, it also compounds regional traffic issues. Austin’s growth has brought an average of 25,000 new cars to the city annually, which has increased the per-capita annual traffic delay to 52 hours, an increase of six hours spent in traffic every year since 2009.

In other words, spread out across the entire population, Austinites are stuck in traffic for nearly a full hour every week.

“Get used to it,” said Angelos. “As affordability issues continue to grow, so will the traffic.”
Turning to traffic and transportation, Angelos called upon regional leaders to push for a subway system for Austin, not light rail.

“Light rail is for tourists. It’s not a way to move massive amounts of people from one side of the city to another,” he said. “A subway is a long-term issue that will put people to work. We may not have the density now, but the density will come over time. We are going to fill up every corner of this city sooner or later.”

By: Michael Theis at Austin Business Journal

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