Texas Metropolitan Blueprint

Learn more about J.H. Cullum Clark.
J.H. Cullum Clark
Director, Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative
George W. Bush Institute

Metropolitan regions are home to 9 in 10 Texans, and they are the state’s economic engines. They need a slate of policies that improves the quality of life for all their residents—and at the same time drives their competitiveness.

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Executive Summary

Texas is a metropolitan state. It needs a metropolitan policy agenda.

Metropolitan regions are home to 9 in 10 Texans, and they are the state’s economic engines. They need a slate of policies that improves the quality of life for all their residents — and at the same time drives their competitiveness.

This Texas Metropolitan Blueprint lays out recommendations for policies that address the most important economic development, land use, housing, infrastructure, and transportation challenges of the state’s metropolitan areas. Each is critical to speeding Texas’s economic recovery and securing its long-term prosperity.

Three guiding principles inform this blueprint:

  1. Texas should invest in Texans and do so in an equitable way. While Texas’s low-tax/low-regulation climate is good for business attraction, it is reaching its limits — going forward, the state’s growth must be supported by substantial investments in its human capital.
  2. Texas should devolve more, not less, decision-making authority to local communities. Simply put, Texas should be empowering local innovation, not blocking it.
  3. Texas should increase and improve its public-private-nonprofit partnerships. Texas should become a national leader in advancing cross-sector, market-driven solutions to pressing metropolitan challenges.

Economic Development

More than 90% of Texas’s economic activity takes place in the state’s metros, and the bulk of its future growth will be concentrated in the five largest. The challenge: Build a more resilient and sustainable infrastructure that is suited to the globalized 21st-century knowledge economy. Specific actions should include:

  1. Invest in the skill development of Texans. Preparing Texans to succeed in the workplaces of the future must become a top priority. The greatest driver of competitiveness is human capital.
  2. Close the digital divide in both metro and rural areas. High-speed broadband is an essential tool for active participation in the 21st-century economy.
  3. Bolster small businesses and promote new firm creation. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the state’s small businesses much harder than its large companies. These small businesses, especially those tied to the state’s export industries, need all the help they can get.
  4. Expand health care coverage and access to drive investment. Texas needs to find “Texan” ways to expand health care coverage. Broader coverage can be a vital element of the state’s economic competitiveness strategy and can create job opportunities across Texas.
  5. Strengthen anchor institutions to catalyze community development. Texas needs to invest more in higher education and medical and technological research, while the state’s anchors can do more to accelerate community impact.
  6. Support local initiatives to use community benefit frameworks in economic development deals. Jurisdictions should be more intentional about the public goals they aim to advance through their economic development initiatives.
  7. Invest in quality of place, making Texas metros even better places to live. Texas cities must focus on strengthening their competitiveness as quality-of-life centers where people want to live and work.
  8. Invest in border and international trade infrastructure, including ports and airports. Cross-border collaboration is critical for advancing the resilient economic development efforts of Texas’s border and port cities. The state’s ports and airports are critical gateways to global commerce.

Housing and Land Use

Housing, particularly housing security and affordability, is becoming a central issue for Texans: 68% believe that the government should act decisively to address them. Rising real estate prices are eating into the cost advantage that has been a key attractor for Texas metros. The state and its metro areas must look for innovative and collaborative ways to expand the supply of affordable housing for the Texas workforce. Policy recommendations include:

  1. Promote the development of market-rate housing. State land use regulations should not tie the hands of local jurisdictions, and local jurisdictions should allow greater flexibility in their own land use rules.
  2. Enable more affordable housing partnerships. Texas needs to encourage more collaborations among for-profit, nonprofit, and public housing sectors.
  3. Provide additional state incentives and funding streams for housing. Revenue caps make it impossible for localities to do all they can to address this critical issue.
  4. Promote renter protections. The state’s lack of renter protections renders low-income and affordable housing programs for the Texas workforce less effective.
  5. Ensure flexibility and effectiveness in key housing programs. Local jurisdictions should have all the flexibility they need to implement affordable housing programs in the most effective ways.
  6. Grant localities flexibility on incentives and goals. Local incentives can create alignment among housing, infrastructure, and economic development. The state should support efforts to meet local priorities.
  7. Address homelessness through a “housing-first” strategy. When permanent supportive housing exists, it is easier and cheaper to move people from life on the streets to stability.

Transportation and Infrastructure

Metropolitan Texas needs a metropolitan infrastructure for the 21st century, meaning broadband, high-tech movement of freight, and better and more pandemic-responsive transportation options within and between cities. It also means investments in flood control and water/sewer systems to deal with climate change and population growth. Recommendations include:

  1. Define infrastructure broadly. The future focus for infrastructure should be on a broad range of capital needs that modern metros require to be globally competitive and sustain the pressures of climate change.
  2. Use rail strategically to improve the movement of goods, especially into and out of ports. Goods movement and logistics make up a critical part of the metropolitan Texas economy.
  3. Expand funding opportunities for infrastructure. Allow localities to raise revenues to fund their own initiatives, including multimodal public transit.
  4. Focus on maintenance as well as expansion. The expansion and building of new infrastructure is critical for the future. However, improvements are often very expensive because of neglecting ongoing maintenance needs. Infrastructure investments should be made in both new and existing systems.
  5. Prioritize safety and health. Expand efforts to increase safety on highways and roads for motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists alike.
  6. Fully utilize existing transportation incentives. The state has a number of existing funding streams that can help localities make significant shifts in transportation infrastructure and other systems.

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