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Metal theft leaving highways in the dark

Post by News Tribune Staff on Nov. 30, 2007 at 3:17 pm with No Comments »
November 30, 2007 3:17 pm

An early edition of my copper-wire theft story is after the jump:

SCOTT FONTAINE; The News Tribune

Published: November 30th, 2007 02:19 PM

It’s a professional operation. A truck flashes its amber lights and parks on the shoulder of a highway alongside a junction box during the night. The driver and passengers, all wearing reflective vests and hard hats, place cones behind their truck.

And then they break open the junction box and start pulling copper wire. Depending on the size of the job, they can be out there an hour or longer as unsuspecting drivers zoom past.

And it’s usually too late by the time authorities have realized wire thieves have struck once again, as they did last weekend on the Highway 16 east-bound on-ramp near Cheney Stadium.

"It’s a huge problem," said Kelly Stowe, a Washington State Department of Transportation spokeswoman. "And it’s tough to catch them."

Theft of copper wire for resale from roadways is a growing trend locally and nationally. Thieves in Washington have preyed upon state-owned street lights, signals and storage yards. It’s become a frustrating financial and safety issue for the Department of Transportation, which will have to cut back on preventative maintenance to replace some crucial equipment. And there’s not enough money in the budget to replace all the wiring, meaning some roadways – including the Highway 16 on ramp – will remain dark.

"That money’s got to come from somewhere, and it has to come from elsewhere in the maintenance budget," Stowe said. "Preventative maintenance might not be done because of it."

In the past year, thieves have stolen more than $145,000 worth of wire from almost 70 sites in the department’s Olympic region, which includes Pierce, Thurston, Mason, Kitsap, Jefferson, Grays Harbor and Clallam counties.

The majority of theft occurs inside Pierce County. There have been 46 thefts in the area since December 2006, and replacement costs are estimated at $101,920. The costliest single theft was on Highway 167 in Sumner last Dec. 20. Supply and labor to replace that wire, which lit the roadway, was estimated at $12,000.

"This has become a national problem," Stowe said. "Nationwide, it’s a billion-dollar theft each year."

An August arrest of a Parkland business owner yielded copper wire, junction boxes and other DOT property but did little to dent the rise in theft, said Trooper Brandy Kessler of the Washington State Patrol. Many thieves, she said, are methamphetamine addicts looking to score more drugs.

"It’s the methheads who need their fix," she said. "They steal copper wire and other equipment and sell it to get money to buy meth."

The transportation department is working with the State Patrol to combat the problem, Stowe said, and has set up a Web site and toll-free tip line to encourage drivers to call in suspected theft. In May, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill increasing penalties for stolen metal. The DOT also has increased surveillance of storage areas that contain metals.

Still, the trend is increasing in frequency, and the Department of Transportation already isn’t able to replace all the pilfered wire.

Stowe said the department’s maintenance budget is divided into costs for real-time operations (such as accident cleanup), preventative care and unexpected occurrences. The latter pays for wire replacement, and the costs are proving to be too much. The department will pay for the crucial replacements like wire to power traffic lights, but other programs will suffer. Officials hope vigilance will help curb the theft. Kessler urged anyone who sees anything suspicious along the roadway to call police.

"If they see somebody at a lightpost and they’re not in a marked car, it’s probably someone stealing equipment," she said. Plus, unless there’s a power outage, workers don’t work in the middle of the night when the wire is stolen. So call it in – even if you think it’s DOT working."

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