Some Oahu roads may stay dark
By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer
More than 15 miles of O'ahu's H-1 and H-2 freeway system remain dark at night, thanks to thieves who systematically stripped copper wiring from highway light poles in those sections starting four years ago.
State Transportation Department officials, who once spoke about replacing the stolen wiring, now say they are inclined to leave the two sections as they are.
"Our challenge now is with the state of the economy," said DOT spokeswoman Tammy Mori. "To redo those 15.3 affected miles would cost an estimated $3 million. And that would come straight out of state highway funds. And ... we have a lot of other projects going on and a lot of other priorities."
But Dick Poirier, who chairs the Mililani/Waipi'o/Melemanu Neighborhood Board, argues that without lighting, the H-2 section is unsafe for drivers who have car trouble and have to pull over.
Poirier also said the highway is difficult to negotiate in a downpour without lighting.
Both sections of unlighted highway are classified as rural, which doesn't require highway lighting, as interchanges, major curves or urban core areas do, said Mori.
The H-1 area without lighting consists of both sides of a seven-mile stretch between Waikele and Kapolei, from the Paiwa Interchange to the H-1 terminus past Kalaeloa.
The H-2 section consists of both sides of an 8.3-mile stretch between Waipahu and Wahiawā, from the Waiawa Interchange to the H-2 terminus past Wahiawā.
In fact, some studies have found that electrical lighting can be distracting in rural areas, Mori said.
Artificial lighting is required for safety and liability reasons in state highway areas classified as urban or residential, she said. For example, a section of Kalaniana'ole Highway near Kalani High School that lost its lighting because of an aging electrical system (not copper theft), requires a new lighting system because of its residential classification, Mori said.
Mori said the DOT has beefed up security in the more vulnerable rural highway sections by sending out a special crew weekly to check whether lock boxes have been tampered with.
Large-scale copper wire thefts, which started on O'ahu in 2005, picked up steam in May 2006 in response to the dramatic rise in the market price of raw copper — from around 80 cents a pound in 2003 to nearly $4 a pound.
Thieves were ripping out tens of thousands of dollars worth of copper wiring from pull boxes and light poles, and then vanishing before police arrived.
In several instances, thieves later returned to the same area they had hit before to rip out more wiring.
Entire stretches of the state's Nimitz and Kamehameha highways, as well as of the H-1 and H-2 freeways, began going dark. In one weekend in March 2007 thieves yanked out six miles of wiring between Kunia and the Makakilo overpass.
Because of their urban classification, Nimitz and Kamehameha were relighted, as mandated by law.
By that time, a task force of state and city law enforcement officers had been formed to try to apprehend and prosecute the culprits.
At the same time, the DOT pondered how to handle the problem of when, or even if, to replace missing copper wiring, knowing the thieves might steal it again. Officials researched ways to secure copper wire from theft in a way that wouldn't hinder workers trying to restore highway lights in an emergency.
At one point, the state indicated it would replace the wiring once the thefts subsided.
The state also considered replacing copper wiring with cheaper aluminum wiring to discourage the thieves.
"But that would have been a very expensive process because they would have to change the conduits and transformers and the whole system itself to make the changes," Mori said.
"It's not as easy as switching the wires from copper to aluminum."
All the while, the copper wire thefts continued.
In June 2008, police got a break when they nabbed James B. "Freeway Jimmy" Taylor in the act of stealing copper wiring. Taylor, who headed a ring of copper thieves, and nine others were named in a 131-count indictment that December.
In 2009, Taylor and two other ringleaders were sentenced to 10 years in prison each for their part in the roadside heists — which totaled more than half a million dollars in stolen copper wire. By that time, the market price of copper was falling, and the incidence of copper wire theft had noticeably dropped off.
There have been no reported attempts at copper wire theft in the past year, according to the DOT.
"I don't know if it's because the thieves are behind bars, because the value of copper has dropped, or what the reasons behind it are," Mori said.
She did not rule out the department eventually replacing the stolen wiring along the two stretches of interstate highway.
While there have been those who have complained that the repairs have yet to be made, others have said they prefer that the lights remain out.
Dean Hazama, chairman of the Mililani Mauka/Launani Valley Neighborhood Board, said his board would like to have the lighting fixed and the wiring secured along the H-2 stretch.
"We told them (DOT representatives) basically that we would like to see the lights back on, but not to spend all that money unless they can find a way to make it more theft-deterrent," said Hazama.
Mike Golojuch, chairman of the Makakilo/Kapolei /Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board's transportation committee, said that while he's heard that some people prefer to have the lights remain out along the H-1 stretch, that's not what comes up at the meetings.
"Truthfully, most of the people I've talked to prefer, and would hope, to have the highway lit again," Golojuch said.
"There are mixed opinions about it," Mori said. "It is a point of discussion, though, because the outage has affected the various communities for quite some time."