Thieves stealing copper from metro streetlights, causing thousands of dollars in damage

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Copper thieves are responsible for a problem that's leaving some drivers in the dark.

MoDOT says people are taking copper wire from light poles, and the lights no longer work. That makes it harder for drivers to see at night.

"Thieves have extracted the copper for the value of scrapping it," said Perry Allen, assistant district engineer for MoDOT's Kansas City region.

He said copper theft from light poles happens all the time.

"It seems like we get an area restored and within two to three months, we have another outage," Allen said.

Once someone steals the copper wires from one of the poles, Allen said it's easy for people to pull and steal it from nearby poles, which creates even bigger problems and safety hazards.

"Most of the wiring that's left behind may actually still be live," Allen said. "So there could be the potential somebody ends up getting hurt."

These are some of the areas in Kansas City where MoDOT says people stole copper wiring from light poles in the last six months:

  • 71 Highway between Truman Road and Bannister
  • I-70 from I-435 to downtown
  • I-435 and 23rd Street
  • I-435 and Front Street
  • I-435 and 40 Highway
  • Downtown loop
  • 71 Highway and 22nd Street
  • I-70 and Paseo

On the stretch of 71 Highway between Truman and Bannister alone, MoDOT said police caught two people stealing last month.

It could cost up to $500,000 to repair the poles and replace the copper wiring. In 2017, the agency spent about $300,000 fixing broken poles and replacing copper wiring.

The wire typically brings in around $2.60 per pound, according to Allen. But thieves looking to make money off their loot may not have much luck in Kansas City.

Sanford Levine owns KC Iron and Metal. Per Kansas City ordinance, all of his transactions -- including those for copper -- are recorded.

"The wire itself is very poor wire," Levine said. "Plus the way we are not supposed to buy that stuff, so we don't."

A Kansas City ordinance shows all the things scrappers can't legally buy without ownership verification.

"Here's the problem: You can't guarantee if it's stolen or not," Levine said. "And you can't profile someone like that. So rather than doing it that way, it's easier just to not buy the material, refuse it."

Right now, MoDOT is researching products that would basically put armor over the area where the wire is, making it harder to steal. The problem is that the bottom of the pole is meant to break off if a driver hits it to prevent injuries, and they don't know yet if that safety feature would still work with more cover over the wires.