Thieves have cast 33 miles of Interstate 95 into darkness in Palm Beach County by yanking out the underground copper wire needed to power the overhead lighting.
The wire can be sold to metal recycling companies for as much as $3 a pound. State officials say it will cost $200,000 to replace the wiring and install anti-theft devices to prevent thieves from removing it again.
During the past four to six months, state transportation officials say, 18 sites in Palm Beach County have been hit by thieves, who removed 175,000 feet of wire.
"It has been an ongoing problem for a while," said Barbara Kelleher, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Transportation. "It used to be aluminum being stolen. Now it is copper wiring."
The thefts along I-95 are so rampant that West Palm Beach police put out a media release last month urging drivers to call them or the Florida Highway Patrol if they see vehicles stopped near light poles.
The problem isn't confined to South Florida. Traffic officials across the country have reported similar thefts.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a Washington-based trade group, has set up a website where law enforcement officials across the United States and Canada can report thefts and have the information relayed to recycling sites within 100 miles of where the incident occurred.
In Florida, metal recyclers are required to take photos and thumbprints of their customers before buying metals. Local recyclers, who declined to speak on the record, said they work closely with police to help catch thieves.
Since June, the Florida Highway Patrol said it has received at least 15 complaints about wire theft along I-95 from Palm Beach to St. Lucie counties.
The economic downturn is to blame for the recent uptick in thefts, FHP spokesman Lt. Tim Frith said.
"Obviously, the economy has driven this," Frith said. "It does present itself as a kind of crime of convenience."
Palm Beach County engineer George Webb said the county had three sections of lights along Southern Boulevard and SR 7 hit by thieves 18 months ago. To help curb the problem, the county began installing anti-theft devices in light posts in vulnerable areas, Webb said.
"Nowadays when somebody sees a complete series of lights out, my first speculation would be that the cable has been stolen," Webb said.
The light posts are connected by large sections of underground copper wire. Boxes on the side of the posts or in the ground between each unit make the wire an easy target for thieves, officials say. The thefts occur during the daylight, when the lights are off and the wires are not live.
Frith said that posts along the interstate are more vulnerable because drivers travel at such high speeds that criminals go unnoticed, or passers-by don't make the connection.
"A passing motorist might think that person just broke down," Frith said. "Anyone that is out there working, there should be some type of warning to passing motorists that work is occurring."
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