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Street lights are out but you're still footing the bill; how can we prevent wire thefts?

In a city like Tulsa, this feels like a third world problem. A few patches of light, surrounded by miles and miles of dark streets and highways.

It’s been that way so long most of us just accept it, sometimes because we forget this isn’t how things are supposed to be.

“We go out back to walk the dog or something and it’s dark,” said Robert Schultz.

MORE NEWS | City Councilor on copper wire thieves: 'We're really cracking down'

Schultz thought his neighborhood was just naturally dark until he realized all of the lights are out on his stretch of the Broken Arrow Expressway. The lights have been out since he moved there about a year ago.

“The moonlight is the only light you can get,” said Schultz.

By now, the cause of it all is well known: An epidemic of copper theft along Tulsa highways.

The crooks may not be geniuses, but they’ve managed to do a lot of damage, and the City of Tulsa has had a hard time stopping them.

“They’ve been paying attention to this, it’s just a matter of catching the people,” said Terry Ball, with the City of Tulsa.

2016I-44 – hit 2 times
Highway 11 – hit 2 times
Highway 75 – hit 3 times
I-244 – hit 2 times
Highway 412 – hit once
Highway 169 – hit 2 times

Ball says thieves have dismantled the entire highway lighting system. Not only is the City paying to fix all those disabled street lights, residents are still paying the same flat-rate electricity bill as if all the lights were on, even though they're off.

Last year, in 2016, when 33 miles of copper were stolen and highways were dark, the City forked over $620,000 for highway lighting.

“It’s a continual catch-up, trying to keep the lights up with people coming in trying to do stuff to them” said Ball.

The latest solution -- having two City crews replace copper wiring with aluminum. It's less of a target because it’s worth a fraction of what copper brings. The City is also slapping stickers on light poles in hopes thieves will say "why bother?"

RELATED NEWS | Tulsa highway lights make gradual returns

But is that enough? To find out, Channel 8’s I-team turned to Salt Lake City, Utah, which fought its own battle with streetlight thieves and won.

“(The theft) was the biggest in our state's history,” said John Gleason, with the Utah Department of Transportation. “Along I-15, about a mile long stretch (of copper wiring was stolen) in north Salt Lake.”

Utah made the switch to aluminum but went two steps further. They buried the boxes that gave access to the wiring, and they set up sensors on the lights with copper wiring still in them. It was expensive, but it worked.

RELATED NEWS | Tulsa is turning the lights back on for drivers

“We don’t have extra money sitting in a pot ready to go out and repair these type of criminal activities,” said Gleason.

Back home in Tulsa, Schultz is for anything that gets the lights on and keeps them on. Burglars have broken into his home twice, and he believes the darkness makes him vulnerable.

“It makes it kind of a target. If it’s dark back there, I think it makes it much more attractive,” said Schultz.

Pedestrian fatalities along dark highways in Tulsa in 2016
3/23/16 @ 4:42 AM (Dark-Not Lighted)
I-44 / Lewis – Tulsa CO
Decedent – Braden Vanvolkinburg
8/12/16 @ 4:19 AM (Dark-Not Lighted)
I-44 / Admiral Pl – Tulsa CO
Decedent – Tony Carter
8/20/16 @ 4:24 AM (Dark-Lighted)
I-44 / Yale – Tulsa CO
Decedent – Lonnie Bean
8/25/16 @ 4:01 AM (Dark-Not Lighted)
I-244 / US 169 – Tulsa CO
Decedent – Suzanne Goldsmith
12/28/16 @ 5:59 PM (Dark-Not Lighted)
I-244 / 31st St So – Tulsa CO
Decedent – Chase Bridges

Dark highways are also a concern with recent crashes involving pedestrians. In 2016, five people were killed, including an 11-year-old boy, while walking along or crossing dark highways in Tulsa County.

After Chase Bridges died in December, some residents in west Tulsa told us said they simply don't feel safe driving at night.

"I think it restricts your ability to go out. I don’t go anywhere where I don’t feel safe and I would not feel safe on these dark highways," said Mary Lou Olson.

RELATED NEWS | TPD task force arrests 19 in copper thefts from light poles

Even Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said his mother has voiced her concerns about the lighting issues.

"I hear about it from a lot of people all the time. My own mom has concerns about where to exit the highway because it’s hard to see the markers when they are not lit," Bynum said in December.

As for Tulsa's efforts, work continues on replacing the copper wiring with aluminum. But it remains to be seen if that, along with the stickers addressing thieves, will cut down on the crime. Just this week, two men were arrested after Tulsa police say their Scrap Metal Task Force received a report about wire theft actively happening along I-244.

While Tulsa is repairing the lights one at a time, it's making the switch to metered lighting. It'll help cut down on paying for lights that aren't on. The City paid $620,000 for highway lighting in 2016 and highways are expected to be lit by 2018.


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