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Detroit's New LED Freeway Lights Off At Night, On During The Day

By Scott Lewis

Last summer the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) spent $3.2 million on a project to install 330 new lights on a five-mile stretch of I-94 from Conner to Eight Mile Road.

The new lights are beautiful, sleek, energy efficient LEDs.

The problem is they don't work.

From Conner to just west of Cadieux, every single light is out at night. East of Cadieux to Eight Mile Road, the outages are sporadic.

And the strangest thing of all is the lights that do work are also burning during the day. What's up with that? And why did we pay for new lighting and get darkness?

It's the copper thieves. Before we could even enjoy our new lights, officials say the crooks figured out how to steal the copper wire that feeds them electricity. And it's not just the new lights that are going dark. When thieves steel the copper wire they're also knocking out power to freeway cameras and message boards.

"You'll see a message board, a new one at I-94 and Burns just east of I-75. That message board is dark because of copper theft," MDOT spokesman Rob Morosi told me.

You might think these new modern lights would be designed to be theft-proof, but they're not. So how are the copper thieves getting to the valuable copper wire?

If you drive I-94 you probably know that the old light poles were mounted on top of the concrete median barriers. It would pretty tough for a thief to steal wire there with cars whizzing by at 70 miles-per-hour.

But Morosi says having the poles on the median barriers was dangerous.

"Every time we had an issue with maintenance or whatever we had to send crews out there, close a lane, put them up in a bucket truck, 14 to 18 feet into the air. We didn't want to deal with that safety issue anymore so we moved them to the slope so that any maintenance that needs to be done doesn't interfere with traffic," Morosi said.

So, the new LED light poles were moved to the sloped banks on both sides of the roadway. And, interspersed between the light poles, in the ground, there are what MDOT calls "hand holes," which were quickly discovered by copper thieves.

"The holes are essentially like little access points so if you ever have to do maintenance or things like that to the lights, the signs, the cameras, that's their access point," Morosi said.

Unfortunately for us, access points for maintenance crews are also easy access points for copper thieves. They simply cut the locks off the hand hole covers and yank out the wire. And that leaves all of us driving in the dark.

Welcome to Detroit.

Metal thieves are pillaging our city, stealing everything from manhole covers, to aluminum siding and air conditioners. And while Detroit gets stripped clean, Lansing fiddles.

Lawmakers have been diddling around with metal theft legislation for over a year. Some lawmakers want super-tough regulations on scrap yards so it will be difficult for thieves to unload their stolen metal. But the scrap metal industry is against that and they have a strong lobby. The legislation has languished and metal thieves continue having a field day.

But back to those new LED freeway lights. Why are they burning during the day?

Freeway light 2 - Version 2
These freeway lights are illuminated along I-94 in Detroit, even though it's the middle of the day. When it gets dark out, the lights actually turn off, leaving many Detroiters scratching their heads. (Credit: Scott Lewis/CBS Detroit)

"The reason that we left the new LEDs on during the day was to act as a deterrent. The deterrent being that they know that they've got full power going through and when they cut they're going to get a jolt, and they're still cutting anyway," Morosi said.

So, what's the fix here, and when is it coming?

"The fix is to hire a contractor to go in there to install more copper wiring, put in extra deterrents, extra mechanisms so they just don't have to cut a lock," said Morosi.

It's going to be a while though. MDOT has only so much money. The priority now is keeping the roads clear during one of the toughest winters in recent history. The priority will shift soon when the spring thaw hits.

"Pothole season is coming upon us, and Scott, it's going to get ugly," Morosi told me.

The lights will have to wait until the frost comes out of the ground so workers can dig down to replace the wire. Those brand new lights will stay dark, most likely until summertime.

And all this drama and expense for us, so some creep can make a few bucks at the scrap yard.

Veteran TV investigative reporter Scott Lewis is now in private practice.  Scott Lewis Private Investigations is a premier, full service agency serving the state of Michigan.  If you need private investigation services, contact Scott at 1-855-411-Lewis (5394), email him at or check out his website at

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