‘We can’t keep up’: Copper wire thieves plague roadways, shut down I-5 express ramp

SEATTLE — Wire thieves are hitting highways and bridges across Western Washington. The latest incident forced the closure of ramp to access I-5 express lanes at 9th and Pike near the Washington Convention Center.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) says the criminals also caused significant damage to equipment all along the ramp in downtown Seattle, wreaking enough havoc that WSDOT can’t yet give an estimated reopening date.

“Junction boxes, terminal cans – they were all opened and destroyed. A lot of wire was removed,” said Karen McKenzie with WSDOT. McKenzie is the superintendent of signal maintenance for the Northwest region. “We keep finding more and more damage because they rip things apart just to pull the wire out,” she said.

“We had to close the ramp off entirely,” said Trooper Joseph Armstrong with the Washington State Patrol (WSP). “Some of the cameras in the area are off line, the power to open up the gates,” he said.

McKenzie said thieves even cut fiber optics cables with no copper inside in their search. As of Tuesday evening, WSDOT crews were still assessing damage so it’s not clear yet how much wire was stolen or how expensive the repairs will be.

“It happens so frequently that the public is not really aware of it. It happens on a very regular basis, multiple times a week,” McKenzie said.

A search on copper prices and you’ll see it has sharply increased the past few years, nearly doubling since a low in 2020. Prices for copper have shot up 25% in just the past year.

“When you see copper prices go up, the wire theft for the copper definitely goes up,” McKenzie said.

WSDOT says another trouble spot has been State Route 18, as well as SR 167 and S 212th St near Kent.

“We’d repair it during the day. Taken again at night,” McKenzie said. “We were trying different methods to try and prevent it and even had Kent police around to help out. And still they stole it night after night after night,” she said.

WSP also adds that criminals appear to be getting more bold in their quest to earn a few bucks.

“They’re getting desperate because they are now cutting live wires,” Armstrong said. “That’s pretty dangerous to cut but they’re doing it and were able to do it without getting hurt.”

McKenzie said the I-5 express ramp incident someone clearly cut a hot wire because the damage caused an arc flash leaving a burn marks.

She said WSDOT is working on new ways to hopefully stop the thieves.

“I really don’t want to speak to that on camera because I don’t want to give anyone an advantage to what we’re doing,” she said.

But WSDOT says the problem is taking a huge toll on your tax dollars and on work crews. Repairs cost over the last six months up to Jan. 31 have cost $129,000 and 641 labor hours, according to McKenzie.

“There is just so much damage we can’t keep up with our regular work load and that’s really frustrating,” McKenzie said.

Troopers and WSDOT are asking for your help. They say if you see someone working on the side of the road, look for an official WSDOT logo on safety vests, hardhats, and work trucks. Sometimes thieves are wearing unmarked safety vests, or no safety gear at all.

“If you see a random person wearing a vest and say, hey that doesn’t look right – call in,” Armstrong said.

You can report suspicious activity by calling 911.

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