Commuting in the Bay Area has turned nasty -- and it can't all be blamed on too many solo drivers, out-of-sync traffic lights or an improving economy.
Thieves are increasingly at fault, tearing out valuable copper wiring that powers metering lights, traffic signals, lights on freeway signs and city streetlights.
Farmers have also been hit hard, as well as construction sites and even Little League fields. But it's drivers who are among the first to notice.
Ramp meters have been dark at Isabel Avenue to Interstate 580 since October, on I-280 at Avalon Drive on the Peninsula for a couple of months and at Almaden Expressway onto Highway 85 for two weeks.
"Any idea on when they will be up and running?" asked Jack Moyer of San Jose, frustrated about the dark meters at Almaden and 85. "With those out the backup is much more pronounced in the morning."
A total of 59 meters have been vandalized in the Bay Area over the past year, and Caltrans has replaced the wiring at just 18. It can take three to four months to make repairs, which will likely be the case at Almaden. And it typically costs $35,000 to fix one meter.
"I cannot catch up with them," said Alan Chow, who oversees Caltrans' metering light system in the Bay Area. "They even stole the wire at a weight station in front of the CHP."
It's as bad in the Golden State as anywhere in the country. The National Insurance Crime Bureau ranked California fourth in the U.S. for the most metal theft claims between 2009 and 2011, and probably only a fraction of all thefts are ever reported.
"This damage has affected our traffic operations systems, including traffic-detector loops, electronic highway message signs, safety lighting and irrigation," said Caltrans spokesman Jason Probst.
The state has spent about $27 million to repair damage from copper wire theft over the past several years for ramp meters alone. And that doesn't include the cost for replacing wiring for overhead freeway lights.
San Jose has spent as much as $160,000 to repair 500 lights. Fremont saw its repair bill jump from $62,000 for stolen streetlight wires three years ago to $438,000 last year.
The reason for all the thefts: money. Copper has gone for as much as $4 a pound at salvage yards, almost three times the price four years ago.
But Jim Pierson, the Fremont public works director, said the actual value of the wire itself is relatively small in comparison to the cost of repairs. Thieves, he said, will tie the wires to the back of a car or truck and drive down the street pulling out as much wire as they can until it breaks.
"The damage they do is much more expensive to assess and repair than the value of the copper they steal," Pierson said. "They primarily like to work in the industrial areas of the city, which tend to be pretty deserted at night."
But agencies are fighting back.
Caltrans has begun using aluminum wire instead of copper, moving some equipment to other locations and burying pull boxes, the long, thin, metal cylinders through which the wiring runs.
Fremont is moving fuses into streetlights themselves, partially filling the pull box with sand to cover the exposed wiring and then filling the rest with concrete so the wires are no longer accessible to thieves.
San Jose has made pleas to the public to look out for people posing as road crews and working on streetlights. Thieves usually are out at night, but some are brazen enough to do this in the day, when they think the public will assume they are legitimate road workers.
BART has asked riders to report cars or trucks parked near tracks, especially if they are missing license plates.
A new law this year may be a better deterrent to copper theft, increasing penalties for thefts and recyclers who receive the material. Conviction on felony charges can bring up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000. If the suspect is charged with a misdemeanor, there can be a fine of up to $2,500 and one year behind bars.
The new legislation puts more pressure on the recycling companies to ensure they are not accepting stolen property.
Annette Tanori of San Jose hopes it works. She contacted the newspaper a few weeks ago to complain about the dark lights at McLaughlin and 280.
"With no lights, it is very hard to see anyone walking," she said. "I have been almost hit by three cars walking to the store, and yes, I was in a crosswalk. Can you please put fire under someone's butt to have these lights fixed?"
Caltrans sent crews out to replace the stolen material. The next day, thieves struck again and made off with the new wiring.
Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.