Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Down to the wire: Reporting on wire theft, costs and challenges

By Sean Quinn

Copper wiring plays an important role in our transportation system. It powers important items that help you get to where you need to be like digital signs, overhead lights, traffic cameras, signalized intersections and more. Wire theft has been and continues to be a problem for us. Our crews have seen an increase in wire theft in recent years which may be in part due to the increasing price of copper. Not only is this theft costly to taxpayers, it also puts people at risk who have to make those repairs and the public loses critical infrastructure that helps traffic flow smoothly.

We’re experiencing almost daily acts of wire theft across the state. Each time wire is stolen or damaged, not only can it make it less safe for travelers, but also puts a strain on our maintenance teams who repair the extensive damage. But still, even when repairs are made, damage can happen again.

Despite the effort put forth by us and law enforcement, it’s no guarantee that our equipment will be protected from further damage or theft.

Our improvement efforts

We continue to use stronger theft protection on our boxes – like welding junction box covers – but must balance that with the need to keep them accessible to our crews at all hours of the day including in emergencies. In some places, we are replacing copper with aluminum wiring, which is a much less lucrative find for thieves.

We’ve also changed how we light roads. In some cases, we replace traditional bulbs with LED, in others the entire light and pole is removed as research has shown light isn’t needed in all areas we illuminated in the past. While not the motivation for removing unneeded lights, it does also decrease the amount of potential theft targets.

Wire theft and damage from one of our pieces of equipment in February 2023 near the
SR 167 and SR 18 interchange in Auburn

The costs to the public

The cost of replacing stolen wire can be expensive. Unlike private companies or members of the public who may be insured by commercial insurance companies, we are self-insured. There is no insurance company that we can file a claim with when someone damages our boxes. We don’t have the authority to issue fines or cite/arrest someone caught in the act of vandalism – our partners at the Washington State Patrol handle enforcement. If a suspect is identified and arrested by State Patrol, it most likely will be for theft and vandalism. Our losses are paid for by taxpayers which often means other maintenance and preservation work like pavement striping, pothole repairs and vegetation management gets deferred as a result.

As of April 27, 2023, our statewide wire theft costs for the 2021-2023 biennium has reached more than $850,000.

Copper theft also affects our tolling operations. The annual revenue loss is estimated at $440,000 and the repair cost at $96,000, which delays our ability to meet bond requirements. If power to toll signs is out it also creates confusion over whether and how much you will be charged for your trip, and customers can experience delayed billing while we and our vendor adjust the system to function in a degraded state until repairs can be made.

In King, Snohomish, Island, Skagit, and Whatcom counties alone, we have spent more than $310,000 on security upgrades directly related to copper theft and equipment damages so far in the 2021-2023 biennium. These include repairing and installing fences, security lighting and monitoring equipment, and upgrades to protect cabinets against common intrusion methods.

The safety hazards to travelers

When thieves steal wire or damage our equipment, it can lead to serious safety hazards for the public and our crews. For example, if freeway lights are not functioning due to stolen wire, drivers may have difficulty seeing the road at night. Similarly, if traffic signals and other electronic equipment are not working, it can cause confusion, delays and may increase the risk of collisions. It can often take several days if not weeks to make repairs to the infrastructure and replace the wiring due to delays in materials or availability of crews to go out and complete the work. This includes finding a way to secure the system so that we can hopefully prevent it from happening immediately after we make repairs.

Each red dot along I-5 at the West Seattle Bridge/Columbian Way interchange in Seattle indicates a piece of our equipment like a light or traffic camera that went dark due to wire theft that happened in less than a week this past winter.

Other affects to travelers

Wire theft is also downright inconvenient. In the first three months of 2023, we had a flammable cargo restriction in place for all of I-5 in downtown Seattle, something that is unusual to have in place for that long. The restriction was put in place after wire theft occurred, resulting in damage to the fiber system and conduits, disabling digital signs on the tunnel under the Seattle Convention Center. The signs are there to warn drivers not to enter the tunnel in the event of a fire or emergency. With the sign not operable, it wasn’t safe to allow flammable cargo through the tunnel.

For multiple weeks in February 2022, wire theft forced the closure of the access ramp to and from the I-5 express lanes near the Seattle Convention Center, affecting travel times for some entering and exiting downtown Seattle. We know this is frustrating for travelers and it is for our crews doing the work as well.

A tunnel closure sign over I-5 under the Seattle Convention Center. Wire theft from equipment attached to the sign led to it being inoperable for months, meaning we couldn’t display messages in case of fire or emergency inside the tunnel.

What you can do to help

We continue to work with law enforcement and law makers to try to stop these thefts, but we need your help. Catching someone in the act of vandalism or theft is difficult enough in the daylight, and even more challenging at night, when most theft occurs.

Be aware of the people you see interacting with our equipment. Keep your eyes and ears open for any suspicious or odd work zone activities. Our crews and contractors' trucks and equipment are clearly identifiable with logos. Thieves might be suited up in construction gear, but it’s unlikely their clothes or trucks will display our name or logo. If you see something concerning or poses an immediate safety risk, please call 9-1-1.

Also, keep an eye out for the vehicles around our equipment. Our crews and contractors will always have traffic control set up to alert drivers. Our work zones are clearly signed, and workers wear reflective clothing and hardhats. Drivers will see signs telling them a work zone is set up ahead. Our trucks have flashing lights and crews use cones and barrels. On the other hand, thieves will almost always have a single truck or none at all and will try to appear as discreet as possible, as in this recent video we captured in fall of 2022. The person was stealing wire in broad daylight, dressed up as a highway maintenance worker. There were no vehicles with flashing lights, other crews, or advance warning signs on the roadway around him. Our crews informed State Patrol, who arrived on site and arrested him.

What’s the difference? Click on this link for an example of our typical (and legitimate) signals crew in action. Notice the orange cones, multiple trucks with our logos on it and flashing lights.

Reporting a real time occurrence of theft or vandalism will allow law enforcement and our teams to respond and assess the situation. With your help, we can work to keep our equipment intact, our highways safe and important tax-payer dollars going towards needed repairs. You can also send us your feedback about highway safety concerns by clicking this link.