COUNCIL BLUFFS — Interstate 29 cuts through the well-populated metro area, yet a one-third mile stretch on the city's north side is in the dark — illuminated at night by little more than the headlights of passing vehicles.
About a dozen streetlights don't work because thieves have stripped out the copper wires.
It's a recurring problem. Iowa Department of Transportation officials say several sections of Interstate highway in and around Council Bluffs have been targeted by copper thieves in recent months.
The culprits sneak up alongside the roadway and break into circuit boxes and other access points, pulling out the rubber-coated copper wires that connect the lights to their power source, said Jim Bane, district maintenance manager for southwest Iowa.
Often they pull out 300 or more feet of wire. The thieves typically strip the wire on site, hiding in bushes or under a bridge, then haul the copper away, leaving the rubber coating behind in the grass.
Since July 1, 25,000 feet of wire had been stolen from lighting systems along Interstates in the Council Bluffs area, Bane said.
With the wire valued at about $3 per foot, the thefts cost Iowa taxpayers roughly $75,000 just to buy new wire.
“They will strike anywhere there are lights,” Bane said.
The Department of Transportation does not know when the lights will be working again on I-29 between 25th and 28th Streets.
The I-29/I-480 interchange just east of downtown Omaha was in the dark for several weeks recently after someone stole wire there. The lights are back on for that stretch.
The copper theft problem is not limited to Interstate lights.
Council Bluffs officials have reported a spike in thefts in recent months, including from construction sites and vacant homes. Police say they are seeing two to three cases per day.
“It's all over Council Bluffs. It's horrible,” said Sgt. Dave Dawson, a supervisor in the Police Department's Criminal Investigations Division. “They have been taking whole air conditioning units. Just cutting them right out and taking them.”
The Nebraska Department of Roads says copper theft from Interstate lights has not been a problem in Omaha.
But copper bandits have cropped up elsewhere around the country. Earlier this year, thieves took six miles of copper wire from the median of Interstate 15 in Salt Lake City.
Bob Younie, state maintenance manager for the Iowa Department of Transportation, said copper wire theft has been on the department's radar for several years, but it has generally not been a major problem — except in the Council Bluffs area.
“We can't explain why,” he said. The city “has been an outlier ever since we started talking about it.”
The copper can be sold at scrap yards. Some speculate that the same group of people is behind the thefts. Dawson said it's hard to know for sure. Investigators have “people of interest” but have made no arrests.
Dawson said the people stealing copper aren't necessarily drug addicts. It could be anyone looking to profit from the copper.
Younie figures the culprits have a background in electronics. More than 400 volts go through some of the wires, and it takes some skill to remove them without risking injury or death.
“That makes me think that the folks who have stolen these wires have a better understanding of electrical circuits,” he said.
Transportation officials have installed tamper-resistant circuit box covers and taken other steps in an effort to curb the copper thefts. Because the Interstate system is so vast, video cameras are not a feasible solution.
While the precautions may have cut down on the number of thefts, they haven't ended.
About 3,000 feet of wire was stolen along I-29 near Nebraska Avenue on Wednesday night, leaving some lights out at the interchange near the Ameristar Casino Hotel.
“Where there's a will, there's a way. And in the dark of night it's hard to see people out doing bad things,” Younie said. “When it comes down to it, someone who is determined to steal something from you probably has an advantage.”
Those with information on copper thefts in Council Bluffs are asked to call CrimeStoppers at 712-328-7867 (712-328-STOP).