Ravell Call, Deseret News
Officers Rolynn Snow, left, David Boucher, along with Valentino Martinez and Vic Saunders of UDOT talk Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012, about a copper wire theft along Legacy Highway. About 7,000 feet of copper wire worth $17,000 were ripped out of the highway lighting system in Centerville.

SALT LAKE CITY — Parts of Utah’s highways are in the dark, but it’s not the power company’s fault.

The cause is copper thieves who are ripping copper wiring to light poles. But the Utah Department of Transportation has a few tricks that it hopes will stop them.

Over the past two years, UDOT has spent $450,000 replacing wiring to light poles on major freeways, including I-215, I-80 and I-15. Some of the hot spots are I-80 near Stansbury Park, I-215 at 700 North and 2100 North, I-15 at 600 North, and I-215 at I-80, according to UDOT traffic lighting engineer Richard Hibbard.

“I-215 at I-80 is just a mess,” Hibbard said. “If anyone wants to know why those lights are out, it’s because half the wiring is gone.”

The thieves are doing anything they can to get to the copper.

“Someone was using a golf club the other day to poke around and try to find the box,” UDOT spokeswoman Tania Mashburn said. “We’ve seen horse prints before, so they are using a horse to tie the wiring to them and try to pull it out. They come out with trucks and all kinds of different things.”

UDOT created a five-member team, led by Hibbard, to fix the lights and try to prevent thieves from striking again. One tactic UDOT’s state lighting crew is using is to bury the electric junction boxes in random locations, making them more difficult for thieves to find. 

They are also welding handhole covers onto polls, filling some boxes with concrete, and adding rebar to others to make it harder to chip the concrete away. They are also changing the wiring itself to make it less attractive to thieves.

“We are replacing the copper wiring with aluminum, and so that is not as valuable for thieves, and it’s also a lot less expensive for us to replace,” Mashburn said.

Despite its best efforts, thieves are still able to get to some of the wiring, so UDOT is asking the public to keep their eyes open for anyone pulling wires out of the ground. If someone’s suspects a copper wire theft is happening, they should call police. The UDOT Traffic Operation Center at 801-887-3700 can also tell them if the person has legitimate work at that location.

Contributing:  Viviane Vo-Duc

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