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Transportation departments are scrambling to cope with a spike in copper wire thefts that leave their roads darker and more dangerous.
The city of Los Angeles, like many other municipalities across the country, is dealing with a major spike in copper wire theft from its streetlight network. Between 2018 and 2022, the number of incidents of people stealing copper wire increased by 650%.
The city’s Bureau of Street Lighting has tried numerous approaches to stop the thefts, which can leave several blocks without overhead lights until repairs are made. Those approaches have included installing 1,000 solar-powered lights, which don’t need an outside electric connection to work; putting alarms on pull boxes (access points that make it easier to reach electric wires); and installing cameras nearby. In some neighborhoods, said Miguel Sangalang, the agency’s executive director and general manager, workers have fortified existing structures “where we’re using cement and steel to basically build the biggest castles that we can around our electric systems.”
But with a network of 220,000 streetlights connected by more than enough copper wire to circle the Earth, Los Angeles is looking for additional ways to protect its streetlights. So the city issued a “call for innovation” last month seeking “to discover and test new solutions that are scalable and cost-effective and that will provide the [city] with effective tools to reduce the damage to the city’s street lighting system.”
Those tools could include surveillance systems, alarms, internet-connected sensors, GPS tracking devices, markings on copper wire, locking mechanisms, alternatives to copper and even educational campaigns to reduce copper theft.
“We reached out to other jurisdictions. We’ve done our own homework. We’ve tried to talk to people in the field that are doing the everyday repairs,” Sangalang said. “The reason we’re doing this call is because there are clearly more ideas out there. And we want to get ahead of this and look for new companies that might have similar technologies.”
City officials in Las Vegas say copper theft that left streetlights dark could have contributed to a bus crash that killed a 7-year-old girl. A city official in St. Paul, Minnesota, said theft is so rampant that repairing the damage is “like a battlefield triage.” Thieves in Providence, R.I., are taking several hundred feet of wiring at a time from construction sites, according to the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, even though the cable carries high-voltage electricity.
Morgan Woodrum, a spokesperson for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said copper theft is a problem along most major interstates but has been especially problematic in the Louisville area. About 800 light poles there have been targeted, causing more than $750,000 worth of damage.
“When thieves get into the highway lighting systems, the junction boxes and the controller cabinets, they typically pull, cut and strip the wires,” Woodrum explained. Streetlights work like a string of lights on a Christmas tree, she said. “If they hit one light, it can affect dozens in a span along the highway, so we do have stretches along the highways that are currently dark.”
The state transportation department has partnered with Louisville police and other agencies to try to deter thefts by offering a $5,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and prosecution of people stealing wire from streetlights.
Kentucky also requires recycling centers to check the identification of people selling copper scrap, and the sellers have to sign a statement detailing their sources of scrap metal.
In Los Angeles, Sangalang said engineers have built the current streetlight network over a century with their top concern being ease of maintenance. That means there are nearly half a million points of entry to the system, making it hard to protect from potential criminals.
The city saw more than 4,500 copper wire thefts last fiscal year, compared to about 600 five years earlier. The thefts could affect as much as 10% of the city’s streetlights at a time, Sangalang said.
Citizens have complained to the city about the outages, and Sangalang is worried about the potential impact dark streets could have on crime. A 2019 University of Chicago study, for example, found that adequate street lighting in New York City led to a 36% reduction in nighttime crime. “This is a really effective environmental design to deal with public safety,” Sangalang said.
But the thefts can affect more than just streetlights. Los Angeles has attached 800 publicly available electric vehicle chargers to its streetlights. Air quality monitors have also been installed, with the help of NASA and Cal State LA, to track pollution. Many streetlights hold up 5G equipment to improve mobile internet service. “We’ve taken the effort to build out this electrical and communications network,” Sangalang said. “That is what we need to safeguard, the opportunity for the future, not just the light itself right now.”
As Los Angeles tests alternatives, it has found benefits and drawbacks to different approaches.
The self-contained solar-powered lights, for example, could help the city in its efforts to improve sustainability and resiliency. They would continue to work even if an earthquake or tsunami took out the power grid. But they wouldn’t be able to support the communications or electrification functions of current streetlights, Sangalang said.
Fortifying lights against thieves may deter them, but it is time-consuming and labor-intensive. It can involve breaking up sidewalks and pouring more concrete for 15 to 18 lights on a circuit at a time, Sangalang said. “We’re not talking about trying to change a light bulb,” he explained. “It’s more akin to rewiring your house, when you have to take out your walls to do these things.”
Some cities have experimented with using aluminum wiring instead of copper. But aluminum is less conductive than copper and has a shorter shelf life. “The engineers are telling me that just the resistance can create areas where it might actually start a fire,” Sangalang said. So the agency is only testing that out for specific situations.
“What we’re finding is that there’s not one ideal solution for the issue,” he said. “We will look to deploy everything. That’s been the charge of the mayor: Get the lights on and make sure they stay on, because that’s what helps make our neighborhoods feel safe.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.