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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 2, 2007

Repair costs after copper thefts: $1 million

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

The cost to turn on miles of O'ahu freeway lights darkened by copper thefts in the past year is likely to exceed $1 million, private experts say.

While state transportation officials say they have not come up with an estimate, that's the figure given by local electrical contractors and engineers who specialize in freeway and commercial lighting.

The cost of replacing the wire and fixing damaged circuits could total $775,000. With planning, labor and consulting fees, the cost to taxpayers rises to more than $1 million.

The area of repair is vast: Since May of last year, copper has been ripped from 225 light poles along stretches of the H-1 Freeway in Makakilo and Kunia, and along the H-2 Freeway in Central O'ahu. The entire stretch of freeway from Kunia to Makakilo is dark, as are patches of the H-2 heading to and from Mililani.

The value of the copper wire stolen is more than $420,000, police said. Copper has soared in value on world markets recently, making it a much sought after commodity for thieves.

"For the pennies (the thieves) are getting for recycled wire, it costs so much more (to put it back)," said Enrique Che, an engineer and director for planning and design for the Hawaiian Electric Co. customer installation department.

Lawmakers and residents are frustrated by the thefts and are wary of driving dark roadways.

"I drive it. It is a very dark stretch and it is not at all safe for the people who live out there or anyone traveling to the Wai'anae Coast (at night)," said state Senate president Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha).

"I think the public safety concern is the primary concern, especially on that stretch of the freeway because it's so traveled. The whole growth center on this island is affected by that, and I'm just thankful there hasn't been any major accidents that are attributed to the lack of lights."

Several bills aimed at combating the growing problem are before the Legislature.

Of the 16 bills originally introduced most of them aimed at adding requirements for recyclers who buy the wire five remain alive.

Most of the bills that would have required recyclers to fingerprint people trying to sell copper have died. But others remain that would, among other things, require sellers to provide a receipt or notarized document authenticating that the seller is the rightful owner of the copper. One proposal would require recyclers to photograph copper purchases and keep them on file for two years.

As long as the copper stealing continues, the costs to taxpayers mount.

"A rough estimate to replace copper wires between 225 light poles, and three conductors that were stolen, would cost approximately $550,000," said Derek Oshita, vice president and chief estimator for American Electric Co. Inc., a private electrical contracting company.

Added to that would be an additional $225,000 needed to repair the poles, "depending on how much damage there was to the pole and any rewiring that was stolen from the pole itself," Oshita said.

But the wiring and poles are not the only areas of repair.

"In addition to not only copper wiring, other systems such as traffic signal, telephone and cable systems may have been damaged or stolen in the process and have added cost associated also."

For its part, the state Department of Transportation is holding off on replacing the wire or turning on the lights until it can come up with a way to adequately secure the wire.

DOT, the agency responsible for repairing the missing wire and darkened lights, is working with consultants and federal officials to remedy the problem.

"At this time, we don't have an estimated cost. Unfortunately, it is more than copper wiring being stolen; there was damage to some of the lighting fixtures as well when the thefts occurred," DOT spokesman Scott Ishikawa said.

The key now, he said, is to devise ways to protect the wiring and lights from thieves.

"There were several attempts some successful and others unsuccessful in replacing the copper wires and better securing the lighting panels along affected areas," Ishikawa said. "Until we have stricter penalties and regulations regarding the copper issue, this will continue to be a cat-and-mouse game."

He said the department also has had preliminary discussions with vendors on what it would take to make the freeway lighting more tamper-proof.

"We've also discussed with federal highway officials on what other states are experiencing ... copper thefts and how they are dealing with the problem. The copper theft issue is not just a local one."

One expert said more security could lead to even higher costs.

"I really can't think of anything, electrically, that you can do to prevent the theft," said Che, the HECO engineer. "You could bury everything deeper, but then the problem is if anything goes wrong, troubleshooting and repairs are going to really cost."

In the latest incident, thieves stole more than six miles of copper wire valued at $102,000 from the H-1 Freeway in early March, leaving a stretch of road from Kunia to the Makakilo overpass in the dark. Taken were 24,000 feet of No. 2 gauge copper wire and 8,000 feet of No. 6 gauge copper wire that connected light poles. The heavy wire was buried and would have required a large truck to transport it and a powerful winch to pull it from the ground, police said.

Reach Peter Boylan at pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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