Triumph of the Triangle: How Texas can hold onto its urban economic powerhouse


In 1966, a lawyer named Herb Kelleher met one of his clients, a pilot and investment banker named Rollin King, for a drink in a San Antonio hotel bar. Both were entrepreneurs looking for new opportunities, and they discussed starting an airline to serve a

Keys to preserving the Texas Triangle: Transit Education Technology

Photos by Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Neonbrand/Unspash, Alex Kotliarskyi/Unsplash

In 1966, a lawyer named Herb Kelleher met one of his clients, a pilot and investment banker named Rollin King, for a drink in a San Antonio hotel bar. Both were entrepreneurs looking for new opportunities, and they discussed starting an airline to serve an in-state. The legend is that King drew a triangle on a cocktail napkin, showing how the new airline would connect the major markets in Texas. 

Like so much mythology about Texas, this legend is only partly true. King never drew a triangle on a cocktail napkin. But he did hatch the idea with Kelleher of an in-state airline flying a triangle. Today, Southwest Airlines is the third-largest airline in the United States, carrying more passengers even than United. Just as important as the airline idea, however, was the triangle idea. A half-century later, the Texas Triangle—the geographical triangle including Houston, College Station, Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio—has emerged as an economic powerhouse.

At the time King and Kelleher met at that hotel bar in San Antonio, the population of the Texas Triangle was about 4.5 million people—not insignificant but only a fraction of the population of, say, metropolitan New York or metropolitan Los Angeles. Only Dallas-Fort Worth ranked in the top 20 metro areas nationwide. The entire Austin metro area had only 267,000 people—about the same population as Garland has today.

A half-century later, the total population of the Triangle has quadrupled to almost 20 million. The Triangle includes five of the 13 biggest cities in the nation (Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, and Fort Worth). And in the last decade, 85 percent of the population growth in Texas has occurred in the Triangle.

Economically, too, the Texas Triangle is a powerhouse. The four metropolitan economies had a combined GDP of approximately $1.3 trillion in 2018—about 6.3 percent of the US economy and almost 70 percent of the Texas economy. If the Texas Triangle were a separate country, it would have the fifteenth-largest economy in the world, larger than the economies of Indonesia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or the Netherlands. And virtually all economic growth in Texas today is occurring in the Triangle.

Everyone in Texas celebrates the state’s remarkable population growth and its economic power. Yet often in the political realm, this New Texas is often forgotten amid partisan bickering and especially because of hostility between rural and urban interests. So it’s time face this reality head-on: Not only is Texas an urban and metropolitan state, but our prosperity is driven—and will continue to be driven in the foreseeable future—by the Triangle’s economic engine.

At the same time, the politics of Texas will become further bifurcated and contentious if the state does not craft its public investments to share the Triangle’s economic momentum with other Texas cities as well as with rural and small-town areas of the state.

So, what do these public investments looks like? And how can Texas take advantage of the Triangle’s prosperity for everyone’s benefit?

First, Texas must focus on fortifying those sectors that drive the Triangle’s economic growth—which, increasingly, are not Texas’s traditional industries but rather fast-growing businesses like telecommunications, technology, transportation, hospitality, new media, and countless business services. The state’s leaders must ensure that investments are made throughout the Triangle to strengthen these sectors and knit them closely together to maximize the region’s economic growth.

Second, Texas must also ensure that pathways exist for everyone who lives in the Triangle can share in its prosperity. This means, above all else, investing in education in the Triangle’s cities and suburbs. As our colleague and co-author Cullum Clark has documented, the Texas Triangle is even with or ahead of the nation’s other megaregions (such as the Northeast Corridor, South Florida, and Southern California) on virtually every metric of success—except educational attainment, where we lag behind. If public schools continue to serve our children poorly—and particularly children of color, who constitute the vast majority of Texas schoolchildren today—the state will undoubtedly pay a tremendous price in terms of future productivity and economic growth.

Third, Texas must prepare for future pandemics and extreme weather events. All the Texas Triangle cities face long-term challenges from hotter weather, drought, and increasingly destructive storms. Warmer global temperatures might cause a rise in sea levels, flooding parts of Southeast Texas, especially in the Galveston area, and making part of the current coastline uninhabitable. At the same time, parts of inland Texas, including a large section of the Texas Triangle, may become more arid because of declining rainfall. This could deplete drinking-water supplies for the state’s large metros even as population growth imposes new demands on the region’s aquifers and reservoirs. Simply put, the state must become more resilient as extreme weather events become more frequent and long-term climate changes kick in.

Fourth, Texas must continue to invest in transportation. Dallas and Houston—by far the biggest economic engines in the state—are among the most congested cities in the nation, while the I-35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio is increasingly congested. Obviously, additional state investments in highways is an important component. But local and federal investments in mass transit systems is also an important part of the mix, as is bicycle and pedestrian safety in the most urban (and job-rich) parts of the Triangle. Investing in transportation also means focusing on mobility technologies of the future: the large-scale integration of rideshare on demand with public transit, bus rapid transit systems, and still more innovative technologies now on the drawing board.”

Last and perhaps most important, Texas must find ways to spread the Triangle’s prosperity to the 10 million people who live in the rest of Texas—and especially the 3 million people who live in rural Texas. With the rise of telemedicine, for example, Texas’s world-class medical assets can be used to enhance both medical care and local economies around the state. Similarly, Triangle-based manufacturers, banks, engineering firms, and business-service providers can locate branches and engage suppliers from midsized cities and rural areas to access capable entrepreneurs and massive investments of capital in the infrastructure needed for water adequacy, conservation strategies, green ecosystem developments, and bio-based inputs in manufacturing.

If Texas continues to be characterized by a lack of cooperation between the state and its cities—especially those cities that host the Triangle’s economic engine—Texas will risk falling behind the other megaregions in the nation and hindering the state’s future prosperity. But if Texas embraces the Triangle as the economic miracle that it is—worthy of continued attention and investment—then everyone in the state will benefit in the decades ahead.

Note: This post contains exceprts from "The Texas Triangle: An Emerging Power in the Global Economy," by Henry Gabriel Cisneros, David Hendricks, J. H. Cullum Clark and William Fulton and published by Texas A&M University Press.



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