SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Department of Transportation is missing approximately 35,000 feet of copper wire along I-15.
UDOT noticed the missing wire last week. Eleven junction boxes along a mile-long stretch of freeway between 1000 North and 1800 North were ripped from the poles. That section of I-15 is now dark at night.
“They pulled the entire stretch, cut it up, put in their truck or whatever vehicle they have, and drove off,” said Richard Hibbard, UDOT lighting engineer.
The heist would have taken hours, if not days, yet the thieves somehow managed to take the copper without being noticed, Hibbard said. It's the largest amount of copper wire stolen from UDOT, he said.
“I suspect that they were out there in the wee hours of the morning when there's not a lot of people around and perhaps pretending like they are broken down,” Hibbard said.
UDOT officials said those responsible likely had some knowledge of how the system works so they didn't electrocute themselves when they cut the wires.
“There's a suspicion out there that this might be someone who is an employee of an electrical contractor that knows what's going on and knows how to get to it,” Hibbard said.
It will cost UDOT $60,000 to fix the problem, he said. The agency has spent between $350,000 and $400,000 each of the past three years on this kind of theft.
UDOT created a five-member team 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 hand-hole covers onto polls, filling some boxes with concrete, and adding rebar to others to make it harder to chip the concrete away.
UDOT was focusing on the shoulder areas of the highway and smaller interchanges where it lost wires.
“In this case, since it's in the center of the freeway, we thought that stuff was safe,” Hibbard said. “We didn't think anyone would go out there and risk their lives trying to pull out wires.”
UDOT is working on a monitoring system where it would be notified the moment a circuit had been cut and a Utah Highway Patrol trooper could check out the situation. The system is in the trial stages.
UDOT is asking the public to watch for anyone pulling wires out after dark. If someone 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.
Hibbard said resources are being taxed to the limit dealing with the wire theft issue, and it’s really frustrating.
It’s also a problem for recyclers like Chris Bond, who play by the rules.
For more than two years, police have worked with recyclers in a network to alert recyclers after metal thefts.
"We are able to keep our eyes open,” said Bond, with Metro Recycling. “Within 24 hours of the theft, if not sooner, you are able to get a description of the theft of the material that they're looking for, any suspect information."
It’s a system that’s worked well, he said. But the system is not catching everyone, and thieves may be taking metal out of state, too.
The recycler is required by law to get a copy of a seller’s photo ID. They are also required to note the make, model and license plate of the seller's vehicle, the type of metal being recycled, weight and price paid.
On March 27, Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB108 into law, making the penalty for repeat offenders selling stolen wires a class A misdemeanor, which carries a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail.
A scrap recycling business found guilty of not taking identification information would face a class C misdemeanor, which is a $750 fine and no jail time. If found guilty a second time, it would be a class A misdemeanor.
Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc