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Suggestions for the Airport Task Force

September 8, 2018

Extensive, frequent and well-priced air connections from a modern airport have become one of the most important factors in determining the employment growth and prosperity of metropolitan areas around the world.

The list of metro areas that are connected into a global network that dominates finance, research, international trade, higher education, technology, medical excellence, new media, professional services and other growing employment sectors is increasingly defined as those that have prioritized building, expanding or improving their airports. There is clear evidence of this around the United States and the world.

San Antonio has undertaken a review of our city’s current airport, air connections and future needs. These subjects are among the most important determinants of San Antonio’s future. We know that for a major city — the seventh-largest in the nation — with ambitions to add jobs and increase wages in growth sectors, we lack the nonstop air routes that would place us among the cities characterized as most accessible by direct flights multiple times daily and by international routes to world economic hubs.

While it is true that city aviation officials are making a prodigious effort to add routes, and have added useful flights and established new levels of enplanement, I would assert that in the big picture we are falling behind.

Other metros — including Dallas, Houston and Austin in Texas — are enhancing their air connectedness in massive jumps while we are taking small steps. North Texas is constantly expanding flights, from both DFW and Love Field, as is Houston at Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports. And Austin is adding more flights, cheaper flights, new terminals, nonstop flights and international connections to London and other European economic capitals.

Let me repeat: San Antonio is falling further and further behind.

Over the years I have heard officials in San Antonio provide their explanations: that our economy doesn’t generate enough business travelers, that we are locked into a subordinate position by the hubs of Dallas and Houston, and that our dilemma is not a result of our landlocked and small-market airport facilities.

There is some truth to these and other explanations, but they don’t change the fact that San Antonio is not doing enough to change the reality. They don’t change the fact that we are irreversibly relegating ourselves into second-class or, worse, third-class status among America’s most networked cities.

San Antonians of the future will pay for that inaction in slower job growth, the loss of growth firms and a lower wage base. And the core problem with accepting that path is that it flies in the face of a strategy that has served San Antonians well over the past 60 years. Whenever we were told that some forward step couldn’t be done — whether it was HemisFair, the River Walk extension, our biomedical complex, our nuclear power project, the Toyota plant, the Alamodome, the World Heritage designation or recovery from base closures — we took charge of our own destiny and did it. We did it, and we are the better for it.

Now we face immense dilemmas concerning our airport. I have thought about and worked on this subject since the 1970s, and I realize that we are now in a more difficult position than before. We once thought it would make sense to team with Austin and build a regional airport. The population mass growing to nearly 4 million people would make an Austin-San Antonio airport a big-league airport from the start.

But Austin solved its airport problem and doesn’t need us anymore. Besides, the midpoint of two cities 75 miles apart — 35-plus miles — is probably too far to ask flyers to travel, and expensive without expansive and creative rapid rail. So that option is not realistically available. And other suggestions that have been considered over the years are pre-empted. Port San Antonio is spoken for as a industrial location with unique access. Joint use of Joint-Base San Antonio-Randolph, as Gen. Robert McDermott once championed, would complicate the imperative to preserve the military training missions there.

But as complex as it is, I do believe two things are clear, and I offer them to the city task force for consideration.

One is the reality that Austin and San Antonio are merging into a powerful American metropolitan region, the Southwest corner of the globally significant Texas Triangle. That positioning is one of San Antonio’s best hopes for the future.

Mark my words, we will be sharing professional sports teams with Austin in the years to come; for now we have the Spurs and it will have Major League Soccer, and in the future one or the other of us will have the NFL and Major League Baseball.

We will also share entertainment venues, educational and medical institutions, and, yes, air service. So it is important to think about how multiple airports will function in a spread-out metro from Round Rock to Floresville. Think of the U.S. metros that manage multiple airports: Dallas with DFW and Love; Houston with Hobby and Bush; San Francisco with SFO and Oakland; Miami with Miami and Fort Lauderdale; Washington with Reagan, Dulles and Baltimore; Los Angeles with LAX, Orange County and Burbank; New York with LaGuardia, Newark and JFK; and Chicago with O’Hare and Midway.

Austin-San Antonio as interconnected metros can manage two compatible, modern, well-connected airports for what will be 4 million people by 2030. We need to think of ourselves as one region with a well-planned system of connected and coordinated airports.

Second, San Antonio will need a new airport. The timing may be in question, but the patchwork additions at San Antonio International are not the long-term answer. So it is time to begin purchasing land. Perhaps it is a 30-year plan, even 40 years, but it is certain that land will not get any cheaper and, in this growing metro, will not get less crowded.

Think of it as spreading the costs over a long span of years, husbanding the funding, aggregating parcels over many phases, as Dallas and Fort Worth did with DFW.

I won’t get into the location decision because that involves careful analysis of the best pricing of the requisite acreage, proximity to the greatest density of paying flyers, and a smart interface with Austin’s Bergstrom Airport. But I do believe it is an affirmative decision that should come from the present task force, and that decisions and actions about location and land acquisition should begin, even if it is 40 years until the opening.

Again, air connections will be a major determinant of our city’s prosperity. San Antonio should not relinquish its positive momentum of recent decades by default. We have proven before that we can take charge of our own destiny.

Let’s do it again.

Henry Cisneros served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton and served four terms as mayor of San Antonio. He is a partner at the infrastructure finance firm Siebert Cisneros Shank & Co.

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