AUSTIN, Texas—Texas leads the nation for fastest-growing cities, with half of the top 10 in the Lone Star State, according to new population estimates for cities and towns released by the U.S. Census Bureau Thursday.
Looking at the top 15 with rapid growth, Texas also rules, with seven cities and towns whose populations are 50,000 or more reflected in the new 2018 data. And, of the 10 cities with the largest numeric increase in population, Texas again is the only state with four making the list: San Antonio, Fort Worth, Austin and Frisco.
Unlike cities and states that are losing residents, the challenges of such sweeping growth affect all areas of life. For a state long stereotyped as populated by cowboys on horseback riding across the prairie, Texas has become a microcosm of the nation’s future. Just how to deal with these growing cities and suburbs means increased demand as state agencies that provide infrastructure and transportation, education and housing, services and more grapple with the state’s economic success.
"If there’s any state that should be prepared for it, it should be Texas," says demographer William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
Frey says the growth trend that began almost 20 years ago was evident after the 2010 Census when the state gained four congressional seats – more than any other state. And, he says, Texas is likely to gain another four seats after next year’s Census.
"Folks are obviously moving to big Texas metropolises and also to the suburbs, but are these fast-growing suburban areas going to be able to accommodate houses and businesses with the kind of infrastructure needed?" Frey says. "Growth is generally good, but you have to be ready for it and Texas continues to need to brace for it."
Population estimates for metropolitan areas released by Census last month show the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington region had the nation’s largest numeric growth, gaining 131,767 people last year. But it wasn’t just Texas’ big metro areas that rated: Two of the 10 fastest-growing metro areas in 2018 are in oil-rich West Texas; Midland was first, with 4.3% growth. Odessa was fifth, with 3.2% growth.
Both West Texas communities ranked second (Odessa) and third (Midland) in a report released earlier this month by SmartAsset, a Manhattan-based financial technology company. Out of 257 cities analyzed under five metrics: diversity, economic mobility, the homeownership rate, home value and the unemployment rate for the "Best Cities for Living the American Dream in 2019" report, Texas dominated the list with four cities in the top 10 and another nine in the top 25.
Odessa and Midland are both booming, as their location in oil country means oil field jobs and fracking have the area reeling.
"In West Texas, the growth is so phenomenal. The area is really struggling," says Jim Nelson, interim superintendent of the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa. "People are coming from all over the country to work here and most are making pretty good money, which has driven costs through the roof."
Enrollment for the current school year was 33,268, reflecting about 1,000 additional students over last year, a similar increase experienced the past several years, enrollment data shows.
Although the impact is local, these issues ripple across the state. Nelson, who is a former commissioner of education at the Texas Education Agency, says his district began the school year 400 employees short, from food service workers to bus drivers, electricians, plumbers and teachers.
"Currently, we’re 260 teachers short in a teaching force of about 2,000. That’s over 10% of teachers. We’re using long-term subs, short-term subs and combining classrooms to make sure students have access to quality instruction," he says.
They’re also using online instructors in some high school classes and they’ve been recruiting internationally, with approximately 100 such teachers currently in classrooms. They’re working on adding another 35 from India in the next school year, Nelson says.
"Because our growth is significant, we have facilities problems. We’re crowded and a year or more away from a bond issue," he says. "People talk about how wonderful it is to have a great economy. And it is, but there are great challenges."
Although the Texas Legislature will wrap up its 140-day session May 27, the fate of a property tax reform effort that could provide more state funds for public schools is unclear.
"Texas public schools experience an increase of approximately 70,000 new students each year," spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said in an email. "Local school districts take an individual approach to adapting to this growth and each determines their own need for more facilities, materials, and staffing. The Texas Education Agency provides financial support to districts in expanding services as population increases require additional funding resources."
James Gaines, chief economist at the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University in College Station, knows well the impact of the population surge. From 2010-2018, the state added 3.88 million people, he says.
Housing Struggles to Keep Up With the Population
In the newly released Census data, among the 12 states with more than 150,000 additional housing units, Texas had the largest numeric increase, at 1.1 million. The next closest was California at 597,000.
All those newcomers – often lured by almost 2.4 million new jobs – need housing.
"Texas has built more single-family homes than any other state," Gaines says. But, "we’ve been adding households faster than the new home construction."
For the past five years, Houston and Dallas have been the top two metro areas in the country for combined single-family and multi-family housing construction, he says.
"One of the reasons we’ve had such a rapid increase in prices is because we’re not only not building enough new ones, people aren’t selling their houses as fast as they used to," Gaines says.
Texas Faces ‘Era of Repair’
With this rush of new Texans, the state’s infrastructure is at a turning point, but Texas isn’t alone, says economist Joseph Kane, a senior research associate at Brookings.
"Texas, like other states, is in an era of repair," Kane says. "A lot of the infrastructure is built out and overwhelmed."
As a result, the Texas Department of Transportation is facing both the need to maintain current highways while expanding capacity, says Marc Williams, deputy executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation.
"The demographic statistics point out Texas is growing by about 1,000 people a day and many of those are moving to the state and many tend to bring their cars with them. They don’t bring the roads with them," he says. "It’s a major problem for us."
An initiative called Texas Clear Lanes began in 2016 to relieve congestion in the state’s five largest metro areas: Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. According to a TxDOT report[CS1] [SJ2] , those five cities are home to 97% of the state’s most congested roads and represent more than two-thirds of the state population. Estimates suggest that by 2050, these metropolitan areas may comprise nearly 74% of the state population.
While there are vast numbers of highway and road projects both planned and underway across the state, one such major proposal unveiled earlier this month affects Interstate 35, which stretches from South Texas near the Mexican border north into Minnesota. According to the State Demographic Center, 87% of Texans live in counties along and to the east of I-35. The value of goods moving along the 1-35 corridor in Texas is estimated at more than $750 billion.
The $8 billion proposed project for I-35 through Austin would dramatically change the landscape, with additional lanes, underground tunnels and elimination of existing upper level bridges. It’s part of a much larger 1-35 effort that’s estimated to cost $37.5 billion. But just as with most state agencies in Texas, funding continues to be a stumbling block.
"Quite frankly, no state can really keep up when you have the kind of growth we’ve had," Gaines says.