Austin, Texas may conjure images of cowboy boots, big hats, and barbecue. But don’t let the “Deep in the Heart of Texas” mythology fool you.

Austin has quickly become one of the nation’s most dynamic and innovative regions – a tech and cultural hub that’s now the fastest-growing metro area in the country.

It’s a place where deals are struck over lunch at hip taco trucks. It’s home to the South by Southwest festival, which draws influencers from across the globe each March. And if you blink, you just might miss the next high-rise tower going up in the booming downtown business district.

The Atlanta Regional Commission will lead more than 120 metro Atlanta business, government, and nonprofit leaders to the Austin region in early May as part of the agency’s LINK program. Each year, LINK provides an opportunity for Atlanta area decision-makers to explore another region and bring back ideas, insights, and inspiration to affect change back home.

Here are some of the top themes that will be explored:

Boomtown Austin

The Austin region’s growth has been stunning. In 1990, the entire five-county Austin metro area had about 850,000 people, smaller than Gwinnett County is today. By 2020, the Austin region had mushroomed to 2.3 million, with nearly half the population in the City of Austin proper.

Austin is now the nation’s 28th largest metro area, just ahead of Las Vegas and one spot behind Pittsburgh. The region added almost 600,000 people in the past decade, a 34% increase. Austin is, by far, the fastest-growing large metro area in the nation over that period.

Of course, this growth brings many challenges. Housing prices are soaring. Rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods are displacing long-time residents. Traffic congestion threatens to diminish the high quality of life that drew so many to the area.

Austin – AKA ‘Silicon Hills’

Austin has become a hot bed for hi-tech and venture capital investment. A recent Brookings Institute report identified Austin as one of just eight U.S “superstar” metro areas in technology, along with San Francisco, San Jose, Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C.

Heralded as a new Silicon Valley – some call Austin “Silicon Hills” – employment in Austin’s high-tech industry has grown by nearly 25% over the last five years. Companies that recently opened major operations in Austin include Tesla, Oracle, and Samsung Semiconductor, proving Austin’s tech growth shows no sign of slowing down.

LINK participants will meet the leaders working to accommodate the region’s growth and, as they say in Austin, Keep Austin Weird.

Transportation Challenges

In many ways, the Austin region is racing against the clock. The region is struggling to keep up with its soaring population in a way that reduces congestion and provides a range of mobility options to meet the needs of residents and businesses.

The LINK participants will learn about several big projects and initiatives that are on the horizon, including:

  • Project Connect: A $7.1 billion transit plan that will build a network of light rail, commuter rail, and rapid bus service, including direct connection to the Austin airport.
  • I-35 Capital Express Central: Texas DOT has proposed adding two non-tolled “managed” lanes in each direction (four total new lanes) along eight miles of I-35 through central Austin.
  • Austin Strategic Mobility Plan: The City of Austin’s first comprehensive, multimodal transportation plan, which includes driving, walking, bicycling, rolling, and taking public transportation.

A Growing Housing Affordability Crisis

The Austin region faces new strains as the population is exploding and job markets are expanding, which is causing housing prices to skyrocket at rates much greater than incomes.

At the same time, longtime residents in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods like East Austin are being displaced.

LINK participants will learn about the region’s struggles and the initiatives taking place to address the challenge, such as revamping the city code to create more density and funding anti-displacement efforts.

What’s Next ATL, produced by the Atlanta Regional Commission, is a community resource that explores how metro Atlanta is growing and changing, and how the region is addressing its most pressing challenges.