Signal Strength Excellent; Priorities Lousy

New Orleans has more important needs than free wi-fi

Municipally provided wireless Internet access is all the rage these days. Many mayors yearn to shower their constituents with WiFi and there’s abundant competition to be the first high tech Santa. How interesting that the first mayor to pull it off is the same mayor whose city is still damp and in disrepair.

On Tuesday, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin introduced his city’s new WiFi system. Hundreds of our nation’s municipalities have pursued some form of the idea, but New Orleans will be the first big city to own and operate a wireless Internet system that will be free to users. Nagin and company were apparently unfazed by the experience of cities like Minneapolis and Philadelphia, which backed away from city-owned plans and sought out competent contractors instead.

There is talk that New Orleans might eventually turn the system over to a contractor, but since bureaucracies tend to fight to keep their turf, we shouldn’t be surprised if that possibility fades with time. That would be bad news for a city that doesn’t have a lot of money to spare.

A recent report from JupiterResearch threw a bucket of ice water on other cities intending to own their WiFi networks. It estimated that the average cost of building and maintaining a municipal wireless network for five years would be $150,000 per square mile-more than twice the figure many cheerleading consultants had predicted.

But Nagin sees WiFi as an important part of the rebuilding effort. Like so many other local leaders, he thinks the hip new technology will make his city a more attractive place to live and do business. He hopes it will even speed up government services, such as the issuing of building permits.

Still, it’s unlikely much building will be done if the city is again submerged in water. Hurricane Katrina triggered a scatter shot of government action that neglected to take aim at one of the most important issues-fixing the infamous levees. Members of Congress have introduced 139 Katrina-related bills. Fifteen have become law. None provides money to strengthen the levees. Perhaps Nagin suspects that the feds will eventually produce the levee money. Even if they do, plenty of other items should be higher up on his to-do list than WiFi.

Take schools. Two and a half months after Katrina, 14 Catholic schools are up and running, but only one public school has reopened. The economy isn’t in much better shape. The city’s chief technology officer hopes WiFi will help “restimulate” the economy, but even before Katrina the economy was limp. Of the nation’s 200 largest metro areas, the Big Easy ranked 159th in job growth from 1998 to 2003.

There are other chronic problems like corruption and crime that have long eroded New Orleans from within. Recently, the city placed eighth on Morgan Quitno Press’ annual most dangerous cities list. The list accounts for six kinds of crime: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and motor vehicle theft.

Perhaps New Orleans would be safer if law enforcement prioritized better. According to a recent analysis by NORML, Louisiana has the nation’s second highest marijuana arrest rate (398 arrests for possession or sales per 100,000 people). In Orleans Parish, home to the city of New Orleans, the rate is even higher. In fact, between 1998 and 2002, the rate more than doubled. Each arrest costs taxpayers $10,400.

Of course, New Orleans isn’t the only city with screwy priorities. According to the Morgan Quitno analysis, Camden, New Jersey is our nation’s most dangerous city. Bad news indeed, but on the other hand, locals do have a shiny new billion-dollar light rail line-which they can presumably use to to flee the city at an even faster rate than they’re doing now.

Many city leaders neglect the unglamorous duties of local government and get seduced by the latest must-have ornamentation: a rail line, a stadium, a convention center. (Los Angeles recently committed $270 million for a convention center hotel.) Inspired by Richard Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class, more city leaders have even placed certain kinds of people on their must-have list. Attract the cool kids, the theory goes, and your city will thrive.

Urban scholar Joel Kotkin doesn’t buy it. He points to cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and Cleveland and notes that “faced with population decline of 30 to 40 per cent over the past half century, these cities have all created programs designed to lure gays, bohemians and young ‘creatives’ to their towns.” If those hipsters do show up, let’s hope they can fight crime. After all, those “creative” programs didn’t stop Cleveland, Baltimore, and Detroit from placing, respectively, twelfth, sixth, and second on the most dangerous cities list.

Bad priorities have punished many of our once-great cities more severely than any act of nature. Crime, though dropping nationwide, still lurks in many urban areas. Bad schools, bad traffic congestion, and bad business climates add to the list of persistently corrosive influences. And fixing such problems requires hard work-mayors cannot simply WiFi their way out of them.

Ted Balaker is the Jacobs Fellow at Reason Foundation.