Saturday, April 4, 2020
April 4, 2020

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Metal thieves black out regional traffic network

Cut cable leaves state unable to provide traveler info

The Columbian

Metal thieves knocked out dozens of electronic highway signs and cameras along Interstate 5 on Friday, leaving the Washington State Department of Transportation’s regional communication system in the dark for much of the day.

The thieves cut a fiber-optic line along state Highway 500 around 1:30 a.m., according to WSDOT. The line was exposed because of a utility relocation at St. Johns Boulevard, where construction crews are building a new interchange.

Some copper was also stolen from the site, said -WSDOT spokeswoman Abbi Russell. The line was cut cleanly, she said.

The disruption cut power to 33 WSDOT cameras and 18 freeway reader-board signs on I-5, Russell said. The outage stretched from Vancouver to as far north as Kelso. It also kept the agency from reaching its workers or motorists for safety purposes throughout the day.

“We couldn’t keep track of crews, and we couldn’t warn drivers,” Russell said. “That’s huge.”

As a result, southbound traffic from Clark County had no warning of multiple I-5 Bridge lifts on Friday.

Impacts weren’t limited to the freeway. WSDOT’s regional headquarters in Vancouver also found its internal communication systems, including email, crippled for much of the day, Russell said.

Cameras on state Highway 14 and Interstate 205 appeared unaffected by the disruption. Parts of the system that were out started coming back online by late afternoon — just in time for the evening commute. A subcontractor on the St. Johns/Highway 500 site repaired the damaged fiber- optic line.

The incident wasn’t the first time someone has stolen or damaged something on a WSDOT site, Russell said. But this was the first occurrence in some time, she said.

“This is not uncommon, unfortunately,” Russell said.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541;;