The Washington State Department of Transportation is grappling with a recent uptick in wire thefts from its properties in Vancouver and beyond.
“We’ve seen an uptick in it in the last six months in the southwest region of Washington,” said Scott Langer, WSDOT traffic operations engineer.
Thieves recently stole wire from the lighting system along state Highway 500 between Thurston Way and Andresen Road and on the north side of state Highway 14, west of Southeast 164th Avenue, according to WSDOT.
“Our lighting and illumination system is there for a reason. Our bigger concern, above the cost, is the risk they’re putting the public at,” when thieves disrupt it, Langer said. “When our lights go out, it takes several weeks to repair it.”
WSDOT discovered the wire theft on Highway 500 on Dec. 30. They estimate the repair to cost around $4,000. Crews discovered the theft on state Highway 14 last month, but WSDOT doesn’t have an estimate on what the repairs might cost.
WSDOT spokesman Bart Treece said wire theft is more predominant in urban areas and has also been a problem in Lewis and Cowlitz counties in recent years.
Wire thefts in Southwest Washington cost about $70,000 to replace over the past two years. Wire thefts cost about $1 million over the past two years statewide, according to WSDOT.
High-grade copper was trading for $2.56 per pound on Thursday, about $2 per pound less than it was six years ago.
“There’s still money in it even when copper’s cheap,” Langer said.
Treece said the agency’s contractors have had the batteries stolen out of their portable messaging signs, which are put in place to relay road information to drivers overnight.
Langer said the thefts probably aren’t being committed by a high number of people because of the risks involved with identifying and cutting live wires.
“It makes me think it’s someone that has some knowledge of how to do this safely, but who knows,” he said, adding that the agency is working to increase self-monitoring efforts along the highway.
“If we could catch the few people that are doing this, it’d go a long way,” he said.
WSDOT officials are asking the public to be vigilant of anyone stopped along the shoulder of the highways.
“Do they have amber lights? Do they have safety gear? If not, (drivers) can call 911,” Treece said. “Maybe that person needs help, or maybe they’re up to no good.”
Representatives of the Vancouver Police Department and the Clark County Sheriff’s Office said they haven’t had any recent reports of metal thefts.