Traffic Q&A: Blame metal thieves for darkened state Route 16

Question: I’ve noticed this a couple of times in recent months: All the streetlights lining westbound state Route 16 through Tacoma are out. It makes for very dark driving at night. Was the wiring stolen? Or is there another explanation for this? It feels like a real safety issue.

— Kate M., Tacoma

Answer: Sadly, Kate, you’ve noticed a very public example of individual greed cutting against the broader public good and winning.

The copper wire used to make those lights shine places a different gleam in the eyes of Tacoma’s metal thieves, who keep coming down the highway, grabbing the wire and disappearing — usually in broad daylight, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment — to the scrapyard to sell off the metal.

Although this labor-intensive larceny isn’t the most lucrative crime out there, it happens so often that the state is considering just keeping the lights turned off for good.

Copper has been snatched out of the utility poles on state Route 16 in Tacoma 20 times in the past 10 months, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Pierce County prosecutors and the Washington State Patrol say nobody has been charged in any of the thefts.

“Sometimes they dress as construction workers,” Transportation Department spokeswoman Claudia Bingham Baker said. “They have hard hats and vests on. Sometimes they’ve been bold enough in the daylight to go and strip all the wiring out.”

The reason to do this in the daytime, per law enforcement: if you snatch wires when the lights are on, having everything around you abruptly go dark will attract more attention than most thieves want.

Take it during the day and there’s no such indicator.

“By the time somebody notices and reports, the person’s long gone,” said deputy prosecuting attorney Scott Peters, who leads the office’s property crimes team and can recall no charges coming through his office for stealing the metal that conducts power for the lights of state Route 16.

That could well change soon.

About a month ago, the State Patrol discovered a gent along the roadside who had “burglary tools with him that indicated where he could have cut wire,” trooper Guy Gill said.

The tools, confiscated, are at the State Patrol Crime Lab for testing. If they can be connected to the utility-wire theft, the fellow will probably receive some unwanted state-issued metal in bracelet form.

With no one as yet taken off the streets for taking the people’s illumination off this street, the Transportation Department is reluctant to spend money fixing what keeps getting broken into.

Restoring light to state Route 16 has cost $170,000 in repairs from all those thefts in the past 10 months, Bingham Baker said, plus all that time the workers have spent in a dangerous position along the side of a busy highway.

After welding the junction boxes shut and watching the highway’s traffic cameras closely didn’t slow the thefts, the state is considering reducing state Route 16 lighting to minimal standards, mainly for merge points and other key spots.

As for everywhere else on this urban highway, well, keep your headlights in proper working order and use the same cautions you would on a remote country road.

“We are studying what would be the results of not replacing it,” Bingham Baker said of the now-darkened lighting. “We have not made a decision yet.”

That this keeps happening did come as a surprise to one person we consulted: G.J. Neuneker, who runs the scale at Tacoma’s Calbag Medals, a century-old scrapyard where copper and other metals are purchased.

It’s against state law for any scrapyard to buy stolen utility wire, which goes onto the pole with encoded insulation, but if you strip the wire, one piece of naked copper looks a lot like the next to most anyone, even an expert such as Neuneker.

And here’s where the wisdom of this crime boils down to the questionable math skills of the perpetrator.

Scouting a stretch of road takes time. Pulling the wire down takes more time, not to mention the risks of electric shock and prison. Stripping wire requires manual labor, of the sort a wire thief could be doing in a position of the legitimate-paycheck variety.

What does all this time net?

Good, thick wire contains a pound or so of copper per foot, Neuneker reports. And he’s buying $1.90 a pound, so it would take schlepping several hundred yards of filched wire down to the scrapyard just to make this particular crime even pay minimum wage.

A year ago, Neuneker said, the buy price for copper was about $3 a pound, and he encountered more signs of thievery, which he dutifully reports to authorities, as required of a man in his profession.

“I’ve been to court already three times in the last five years,” he said, “and they got me scheduled to go again pretty soon.”

If low metal prices mean lower numbers of thefts, what makes the price of copper go low enough to discourage crime?

“World economics,” Neuneker said. “Every time your fuel prices go down, your commodities and metals go with it.”

If shipments of oil from Iran under the newly brokered nuclear treaty keep gas prices low — which is Neuneker’s prediction — copper thieves might not grab the Route 16 wires, should the state decide to repair them.

And even if they’re never fixed, at least driving in the dark will be cheaper.