Driving in the Dark: While other states crack down on copper wire theft, MS continues brainstorming strategies

Published: Oct. 6, 2022 at 5:53 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Central Mississippi’s interstates have 164 lights that are in need of repair as a result of copper wire theft.

None are scheduled to be turned back on anytime soon, according to Mississippi Department of Transportation spokesperson Michael Flood.

“Instead of spending hundreds of thousands to repair them and just have them stolen again in months, the decision was made not to do it for the time being until we can figure out a better way to stop it from happening,” Flood said.

It’s an issue MDOT describes as a catch-22.

On one hand, continuously replacing the same lights over and over again is a waste of taxpayer dollars. But on the other hand, not replacing the lights leaves many Mississippi drivers in the dark.

“If you see lights that are out in the Jackson metro area, ones that have been out, it is likely from copper wire theft,” Flood said.

It’s the same stance MDOT has held since at least 2019 when the agency told us the exact same thing.

In fact, the last time the department repaired a light that was stripped of its copper wire was in June of last year. The repairs were made to three high mast light poles between Fortification Street and Riverside Drive after pressure from people in the Belhaven area.

People like Jennifer Welch who grew up in Jackson, works in Jackson, and wants to see quality lighting in Jackson. “I understand that theft caused them significant infrastructure damage, but it’s just time to be proactive about this,” Welch said.

MDOT said last year’s repairs cost $28,000 and only lasted five months before thieves struck again.

As for the expenses in the last several years…

“In total, between the copper wire and electrical components, it’s close to $800,000 of damages and copper wiring that has been stolen,” Flood said.

Despite the cost, Welch said MDOT should do everything it can to maintain the infrastructure it already has in place because not doing so is putting drivers at risk.

“The particular area along the interstate that is close to the waterworks curve is the area that does not have any good lighting right now. It’s also the area where we just see a lot of traffic accidents,” she said.

To Welch’s point, WLBT has been on the scene of several crashes with few or no working street lights in the area, including the area she’s referring to. While there’s no way of knowing whether a lack of interstate lighting caused those accidents, transportation departments in other states say it’s something they aren’t willing to take a chance on.

In Missouri, department of transportation officials started bolting metal boxes to the bottom of some light poles.

Chris Redline, a district engineer with MODOT’s Kansas City division, said even if thieves are able to break the door or smash the side of the base, they still have to contend with a metal sleeve to get to the copper wire.

“We never stopped trying to fix the issues,” he said. “There just were so many issues that we couldn’t get to them in a timely manner.”

Another strategy the department has implemented is placing the wiring overhead as opposed to underground.

“We’re always trying to get things up and running. That’s what we do,” Redline said. “That’s why we now have an electrical contractor on board to help us with that. They’ve been on board for several years.”

In Indiana, the department of transportation is tackling the very same issue with a couple of different strategies. One is using cheaper metals like aluminum that aren’t as attractive to thieves as copper.

INDOT’s strategic communications director, Natalie Garrett, said it’s a strategy that comes with pros and cons. She referred to an article showing that aluminum isn’t quite as strong as copper and doesn’t do as well in the heat.

That’s why INDOT relies mostly on enforcement to crack down on the crooks.

“We were able to partner with Indiana State Police and other law enforcement agencies to increase patrols in those hotspots where this was happening,” Garrett said.

The transportation department also has a traffic management center staffed 24/7 where workers monitor cameras along the interstate and look for anything happening along the roadways, including wire theft.

“It’s something that we stay on top of. Once we’re aware of an issue, we’re pretty quick to address it just to keep people safe,” Garrett said.

Enforcement is also the main way transportation officials are tackling the issue here in Mississippi.

In fact, Flood says MDOT is relying solely on law enforcement to not only arrest thieves in the act but also stay up-to-date with local scrap yards where crooks often go to cash in on the stolen wire.

“We are working very closely with DPS, MHP, and local law enforcement, so we do anticipate some change and action,” Flood said.

But it’s unclear how well all this is working.

I reached out to DPS, JPD, and the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department, and none of them had documentation to show how many people had been arrested for copper wire theft in Jackson over the last two years. JPD and the sheriff’s department said they would have to have the names of suspects in order to provide that information.

Meanwhile, MDOT said you have to look back further to 2019 when its enforcement division made eight arrests for this type of crime. But it’s a division that is now under DPS, meaning...

“MDOT no longer has the resources to enforce the copper wire theft. We just simply do not have any enforcement officers at MDOT any longer,” he said.

Enforcement aside, Flood said MDOT has heard of almost all the other strategies crews have implemented in Missouri and Indiana. Some measures were even discussed at an August meeting with Jackson’s mayor, the Department of Public Safety commissioner, and several Hinds County Board of Supervisors.

However, Flood said no strategy discussed in that meeting has been implemented because of a staffing shortage and a limited budget.

He said it likely won’t be until spring when the department can bring on a contractor for help.

This is unwelcome news for people like Welch - not only for safety reasons but also for the impression it gives those visiting Mississippi’s capital.

“For people to be coming through Jackson and enter that period of darkness, it feels awkward. It feels like something is broken,” she said. “That’s not the perception that we want people who live here to feel or people traveling through Jackson to feel.”

When MDOT does get around to fixing lights damaged by copper wire, it may be a slow process.

Flood said the department has four people devoted to making light repairs in District Five, which includes 10 counties. The department is budgeted for 10 people.

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