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Update: Copper thieves gut Tulsa’s streetlight grid

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — For years, residents in this cash-strapped city watched helplessly as thieves gutted 33 miles (53 kilometers) of streetlight wiring, plunging long stretches of roadway into darkness. The thousands of dollars criminals pocketed at off-the-books salvage yards wreaked millions of dollars in damage.

Now Tulsa is scrambling to make patchwork repairs to its decimated grid, opting for a quick fix to appease frustrated motorists, including 48-year-old resident Bill White, who says broken streetlights could become a liability for the city and a hazard for drivers, not to mention an eyesore.

Copper thieves have pillaged lighting grids in cities large and small across the nation, causing municipal budgets to skyrocket. Law enforcement agencies estimated that the copper theft racket was costing cities $1 billion a year. At peak demand, copper went for around $4 per pound; it fetches about half that now. Scrap aluminum hovers around 40 cents.

The lighting dilemma in Tulsa also tells the larger story of the country’s deteriorating infrastructure due to decades of neglect, deferred maintenance and unwillingness by officials to make tough funding decisions. Many bridges and overpasses are obsolete; roads are pocked with potholes; sewer systems are time bombs. Some federal officials estimated it would take about $1 trillion to fix the mess.

Cities that can afford more expensive solutions have overhauled their lighting grids with solar or LED technology. Last year, Detroit completed a $185 million conversion of its archaic streetlight system to LED — light-emitting diode — after emerging from bankruptcy. The cost of an LED overhaul, though, could get “staggeringly expensive,” explained Crotty, referencing San Diego as one example.

In an effort to switch most of the lights back on by December, the city is using cheaper, less-durable aluminum wiring instead of more reliable copper and gambling that theft-deterrent doors and stickers affixed to light poles exclaiming in English and Spanish, “We Use Aluminum Wire” will be enough to thwart would-be criminals.

But what the state’s second-largest city is looking to save for the sake of convenience and immediacy could end up throwing its streetlight grid into chaos again, city officials and urban designers say.

“Even with aluminum, really, as long as these materials remain valuable, there’s no magic bullet,” said Terry Ball, the director of Tulsa’s streets and storm water department, which began tracking the thefts in 2014. “There’s no one approach you can take.”

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