Wire theft is a nationwide, billion-dollar problem. As an agency we have lost more than $400,000 due to these thefts. Thieves steal anything they can sell to scrap metal dealers for a profit (even air conditioners, see story from Vancouver, WA). Law enforcement believes these thieves are drug addicts, desperate to get any amount of money they can to support their habit.
The wire used to light our state roadways is made of copper. The demand for copper has grown in countries such as China, Indian and Brazil. The price that thieves get from scrap metal dealers for copper has grown from 80 cents to more than $3 a pound.
The amount of money thieves receive for stolen wire pales in comparison to the cost in replacement material and labor.
Besides the fact that the additional lighting is there to provide a larger sight distance, which improves safety, the costs to replace this wire impacts everyone. As taxpayers, this theft hits everyone where it counts most … in the pocket book. WSDOT is self-insured. No insurance claims are made if thieves steal the wire or equipment. Instead, the money is taken out of an existing budget – the same budget that pays for removing snow and ice and clearing the roadway when collisions occur.
These same funds go toward repairing and replacing guardrail, maintaining highways, bridges, signs and signals.
WSDOT is working hard to come up with solutions to make junction boxes harder for thieves to break into and Washington State Patrol are training troopers what to look for.
These thieves will steal wire in broad daylight. They have staged work zones, setting cones and wearing reflective vests.
Our Traffic Management Center cameras recently honed in on a thief who had shimmied up a wooden light pole alongside I-5 in Tacoma. The thief, who had no idea he was being watched, was greeted by a WSP Trooper and arrested. His car was full of wire.
It’s hard to know whether someone who looks official alongside the roadway is a legitimate worker. A “real” WSDOT work zone will be properly signed, vehicles within the work zone will clearly be identified with WSDOT’s “Flying T” or the contractor log, and if at night, there will be portable lighting so workers can see.
We also list all construction and maintenance activities each week on the Web. When in doubt, it’s best to call 9-1-1. The few seconds it takes for a signal tech or construction worker to stop what they are doing to show proper identification to law enforcement is worth it if it prevents theft.
Related news releases: Tacoma's News Tribune, Wire theft in Oregon, Oregon DOT, Seattle Times.
Update: As we were planning this story, several locations were hit on SR 16 (in Pierce County) requiring some of the electronic signs to be powered by gas generators until the wiring can be replaced.