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After Millions Spent On Repairs, I-94 Is Dark Again Thanks To Copper Thieves

DETROIT (WWJ) - Copper thieves are at it again in metro Detroit.

Just a few months after the Michigan Department of Transportation spent millions of dollars to get streetlights up and running on I-94 from Conner Street to 8 Mile Road, the freeway has once again gone dark.

Diane Cross, a spokesperson for MDOT, said the copper thieves are somehow always one step ahead of them.

"It does seem to be a never-ending chase that we have for the copper thieves and the thieves have for our copper. It's like we put the wire in and they pull it out," Cross told WWJ's Marie Osborne. "It is very dangerous. There are thousands of volts that could kill you, and yet people are willing to do that."

The thieves go to great lengths to cover up their thefts, Cross said, and many even strike in broad daylight.

"Some of the inventive ways -- and I don't say that with any kind of positive, supportive term toward their creativity -- but some of them are dressing up as utility workers," she said. "They may have a vehicle that looks like an electrical van and even have safety vests on and maybe hard hats and be working near an electrical pole. Somebody thinks it's a real crew, but as it turns out, they're thieves that have found a way to break into our lighting system."

Cross said the criminals are actually stealing the copper from under the street.

"The areas that you can usually see, where the lighting boxes are that kind of look like a fuse box in your home, those are very secure and seldom is that the place that they get to it. Instead, it's more of the holes in the ground where the wire actually goes underneath all of the lights, and we secure that the best we can. They're commonly referred to as 'hand holes,' the area where the thieves can get to the wiring," she said.

MDOT is currently working on ways to prevent future copper thefts from taking place. However, Cross said they're conflicted whether to spend money on repairing the lights, which thieves will likely target again, or funding research into deterrents.

"You have to remember, we have to have some form of access that we can get to the lights to be able to maintain them and take care of them. We're testing some anti-theft deterrent things such as heavier concrete pieces that will fill these holes in the ground that is the access for the lighting," she said. "It is a very expensive thing to put these theft-deterrents in there."

Cross said MDOT is also hopeful that legislation currently circulating through Lansing will help their plight. The bipartisan bills would increase the penalties for violators, create a paper trail to help police and prosecutors gather evidence on thieves, and change the policy for scrap metal exchanges. The bills would also ban cash sales of commonly stolen copper wire and set a three-day waiting period for some purchases.

"We think if we have the scrap metal law behind us, that would help even more as a deterrent to the thefts," she said.

At a hearing held earlier this year, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, expressed her support for the legislation, saying Michigan is ranked tenth highest in the nation for the number insurance claims resulting from scrap metal theft.

MDOT said the only effective measure in the lighting battle has been the community, which has been extremely helpful about calling in suspicious behavior that could be potential wire theft. MDOT urges residents who see any suspicious behavior around street or freeway lighting to call the police.

The freeway isn't the only area in Detroit where there's a lack of light. About half of the city's roughly 88,000 street lamps are in disrepair.

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