The first stop out of New Orleans on the Baton Rouge train would be Zephyr Field, so we might have objections from the get-go.
Public transit has been meticulously planned to ensure no easy access to suburbia from the inner city. Yet, if this train comes to pass, black people will be free to alight right in the middle of Jefferson Parish after a trip lasting mere minutes, ballgame or no.
The idea of the train is to forge a closer bond between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which is apparently the key to a more prosperous future. Jefferson Parish sits between them as a reminder of how elusive the cooperative spirit can be even among next-door neighbors.
Still, hostilities have abated considerably since, say, 1987, when the Jefferson Parish Council erected a barrier across Monticello Avenue to keep undesirables from New Orleans out of the white ’burbs and then-New Orleans Mayor Sidney Barthelemy had it torn down.
That was around the time that then-Sheriff Harry Lee announced his deputies would pull over “blacks in rinky-dink cars” if they strayed into nice neighborhoods. David Duke’s brief spell in the political spotlight followed, so that era might safely be regarded as the nadir of metropolitan race relations.
Black people have never been officially banned from the parish — except when the cops stopped a bunch of them trying to cross the Mississippi River bridge on foot after Katrina flooded them out — but then the welcome mat hasn’t exactly been out, either. The bus journey is needlessly long and vexing. What is laughably known as the Regional Transit Authority will only take you as far as the parish line. Then you have to find another bus if you want to go to, say, Metairie.
What gave birth to this rigmarole was the distinctly unneighborly attitude of Jefferson Parish politicians. They cherished their independence too much to yield their buses to the RTA. That would have meant a clear shot at Old Metairie from the very environs the early suburbanites had fled.
The ballpark not being in the posher sections of the parish, the train does not represent such a threat. Besides, perhaps we are less parochial than we used to be. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber and Greater New Orleans Inc. appear to think so. They propose that their two cities be combined into what is known as a metropolitan statistical area.
That would not rank as a great distinction, for the U.S. has 381 MSAs, ranging from New York/Newark/Jersey City with 20 million people to Carson City, Nevada, with 55,000. Still, boosters say an MSA designation would make it easier to compete with such big dogs as Houston in the battle for business investment. Post-Katrina population shifts have purportedly engendered a new sense of common purpose, while the growth of petrochemical industry between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is creating a new conurbation. Cancer Alley is bringing us together.
Nobody would suggest New Orleans and Baton Rouge are peas in a pod, for only one tolerates immoral antics and wild excess. But let us not overstate the differences; when the legislature is not in session, Baton Rouge is no less respectable than New Orleans.
To bestow the MSA designation, the government’s Office of Management and Budget does not in any case require cities to be of similar character. They do need to demonstrate close social and economic ties and an “economic interchange measure” between the major population centers of 25 percent.
This is where the train comes in, for, if ever a quarter of the workforce is to commute daily between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, it won’t be along I-10. Indeed, it is astounding that 11 percent tolerate that drive today, for the tedium can make you nuts even on the rare occasions when there is no congestion. Those commuters must see “Burnside” and “Sorrento” signs dancing before their eyes in dreams every night.
The rail service will require considerable public subsidy, in common with all modes of transport, not excluding the highways. Upgrading the track and building seven stations would cost about $262 million, but that will have to wait at least until Gov. Bobby Jindal is out of office.
Jindal announced in 2009 that he would not apply for federal railroad grants because he did not want the state to be saddled with unaffordable operating expenses down the road. In light of the current budget mess, we can only wonder how he managed to keep a straight face saying that.
Even if the train does materialize, it may still be a stretch to reach the commuting level required for MSA status. Regardless, we’ll still be waiting for the Metairie bus.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.