Mayor Ray Nagin's proposal to build light rail between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is blindingly and obviously right. I hope that it's still on the table, and that the mayor is serious in pursuing it. Light rail should, in fact, connect Houston, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and go north to Jackson, Birmingham, Atlanta and Memphis. At the very least. It's shocking that it took a catastrophe to make this idea conceivable. It should have happened years ago. Until Katrina, the cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans ignored and fought against each other.
The Baton Rouge Advocate only mentioned New Orleans if a particularly egregious crime took place there, and the New Orleans daily, The Times-Picayune, dealt strictly with the business of state government which happened to be located in Baton Rouge. The Legislature was mostly hostile to New Orleans, and the budget battles were epic. As for the citizenry, Baton Rougeans had an instinctive distaste for the more famous town; it was only 80 miles away but it could have been 900. It was understood among Baton Rougeans that New Orleans is where one misspent a small portion of one's youth, but after college, one not only better stay out of it but quit mentioning it altogether. The only public transportation between the two cities was by Greyhound bus, but there was (and is) barely any public conveyance in Baton Rouge that might take one to the Greyhound station. In fact, Baton Rouge public transportation is dismal.
On the other hand, in the minds of New Orleanians, Baton Rouge evokes more disdain than it deserves. Best known in this regard is the reaction of Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, who takes the Greyhound bus from New Orleans to Baton Rouge once and has such a horrific experience he will never repeat it. Nor would anyone else reading the book, unless forced by circumstances. Well, the circumstances came, and tens of thousands of New Orleanians found themselves in the middle of Ignatius' nightmare. It didn't turn out to be so bad: the locals were hugely generous and they turned out to be, after all, not just human, but a lot like themselves. New bonds were forged in Katrina's aftermath and the relationship between the two cities will never be the same. Common interests, social, economic, and political became abundantly clear. Also abundantly clear became the damage of mutual neglect over time.
The two cities need to be linked now in ways that will be beneficial to the whole region. Light rail between the major cities of Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi will instantly increase the economic clout of the Gulf region. Our natural resources and opening to the Gulf make us a potential superpower -- if we can overcome years of petty provincialism and find the political will to see the region in its entirety. And yes, the mayor is right, light rail will make possible the evacuation of population centers. But even barring another catastrophe, it might be really nice to get from one town to another in a civilized way, the way a Bostonian might go to New York for a weekend, to see a play or something.