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Scott Lewis: Voilá! New LED Freeway Lights Darkened By Copper Thieves Are Back On

By Scott Lewis, private investigator

DETROIT (WWJ) - Well, that was fast.

Less than two weeks after my report detailing how copper thieves had sabotaged a $3.2 million dollar LED lighting project on I-94, most of the lights are already back on. This is a welcome surprise since the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) had told me that it would be early summer, at the earliest, before the lights were repaired.

When I reported on this problem in my February 24th blog, I told you that every single light was out between Conner and Cadieux, and there were sporadic outages from Cadieux to Eight Mile Road. MDOT told me at the time that clearing snow and filling potholes would take priority over fixing the brand new LED's so it would be at least three months before the lights would be working.

That's why I was surprised when I spotted electrical crews working on the I-94 embankments west of Cadieux last Thursday. I pulled over and snapped a few pictures.

Scraping Wires 2 (Scott Lewis)
An unidentified worker from an electrical contracting company pulls new copper wire through the ground to replace wires that were stolen by copper thieves. (WWJ/Scott Lewis)

The crews were pulling new copper wire through the ground to replace wire that was stolen by copper thieves shortly after the multi-million dollar project was finished last summer.

So why the fast track? Power of the press, maybe? Government by embarrassment? A new pot of money suddenly showing up?

It's none of the above, according to MDOT spokesman Rob Morosi who says the fix is happening more quickly that expected because the contract on the project is still open.

"Because that contract is open obviously the contractor really wants to close out that contract which I can understand and they're working as fast as they can to get those lights back on," Morosi said.

Whatever the reason, drivers will be happy to see their expensive, new, state-of-the-art LED lights working again.

I took a drive over the weekend and counted. Heading westbound from Cadieux to Conner 61 out of 77 lights are now working. None of them worked two weeks ago.

Heading in the other direction, eastbound from Conner to Cadieux 47 of the 77 lights are on. None of them were working two weeks ago. That's a vast improvement.

But let's get to the heart of the issue here, the copper thieves. What is MDOT going to do to make sure the crooks don't pillage our lighting system again?

As I explained in my earlier blog, the problem arose when MDOT moved the new light poles from the concrete median barriers to the freeway embankments. It would be tough for copper thieves to steal wire in the middle of the freeway with cars whizzing by at 70 miles per hour. But when they positioned the new poles on the sloped embankments, they became was easy pickings for crooks.

In the ground, interspersed among the light poles are what MDOT calls hand holes.

"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.

They also became access points for copper thieves.

Scraping Wires (Scott Lewis)
Hand hole cover (WWJ/Scott Lewis)

The hand holes have heavy cast iron covers on them, but Morosi says thieves were able to cut locks off of the covers, pull them off and yank out the copper wire. I don't want to give any specifics that might help the thieves, but Morosi assures me that the contractor is working to make the system more theft resistant.

"We are having additional deterrents installed within the system and will keep the lights on during the day to further prevent vandals from attempts at theft," said Morosi.

The theory is that if the lights are left on during the day it will be a warning to the thieves that if they try to steal live wire, they could get zapped. But we sure don't want to leave our freeway lights burning 24-7 forever, do we?

"I don't see it happening all summer but maybe until we can see the legislature do something on these scrapping laws and this scrapping legislation," Morosi said.

Ah yes, the scrapping legislation; a pair of bills that would put tougher regulations on scrap yards and make it harder for thieves to sell their stolen metal. The original bills have been watered down and the legislation is languishing in Lansing after a hard pushback from the well-funded scrap industry lobby.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano have both come out in favor of tough legislation.

And just a few days ago the Detroit Free Press published an editorial entitled "Have a scrap of sense and pass anti-scrapping bill".

In the editorial, the Free Press asked two very important questions: "Why shouldn't Detroit require the absolute height of verification that metal sales are legitimate? Why shouldn't the onus fall hard on scrapyard operators to be sure that what they're buying is legal, and to prove it?"

Clearly the pressure is building on lawmakers to come up with something significant.

In the meantime, work continues on repairing the damage that metal thieves did to our multi-million dollar LED lighting system on I-94.

"We are pleased with the progress the contractor is making and are targeting the end of the month for the eastbound direction to be fully illuminated," Morosi said.

That is, of course, unless those brazen and relentless copper thieves find a way to defeat the new security measures. Let's hope they don't, and let's hope lawmakers in Lansing are paying attention.
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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