Copper thefts cause dark conditions along Melvin Evans Highway


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ST. CROIX - It has been an especially dark season for motorists on St. Croix, but V.I. Water and Power Authority officials say there will soon be light.

Motorists, like Sharon Greene, said they have been noticing that the lights on segments of Melvin Evans Highway have been out for a while.

Greene, who lives in Christiansted, said she usually does not drive at night, and especially not to Frederiksted, but she ventured out last weekend to take her grandchildren to the Carnival Village and struggled for most of the way because of the poor lighting. "There were a couple spots on the highway, for a long stretch, no lights were one," she said. "I had to really drive slow because you can't see if anything is in the road."

She said she did not report the problem to any of the government agencies with oversight of the road conditions, figuring it must be something that they were aware of. "I figure the officials drive on the same roads that we do, they have to know that the lights are off," she said.

She was right.

WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge Jr. said the authority is aware of the street light problems on the highway and is already began the process of correcting it.

Hodge said the lack of lights is just one more black eye that the community continues to suffer at the hands of repeated copper thefts.

"They continue to damage the fixtures and take the copper," he said. "It is hard enough to maintain the street lights as it is, but the copper thieves are adding an increased burden to our already minimal resources."

Hodge said the department has already ordered and received some of the materials that will be needed to repair the damaged light fixtures and are now awaiting the delivery of tamper-proof screws that will make it more difficult, it not impossible for the metal bandits to get away with the metal.

WAPA spokeswoman Cassandra Dunn said the maintenance of the street lights is funded primarily from property tax funds forwarded from the government and those funds can only be paid when taxes are paid and funds are available.

She said currently the authority is owed approximately $6 million since it received its last payment.

"It costs about $3 million annually to adequately maintain the street lights on all three islands so this is really a stress on our operations budget that can't sustain it," she said.

She said the thefts have had a great impact on how the authority can function because they are forced to expend money to replace the same copper material repeatedly.

"This is not only expensive, but it is time consuming," she said. They have stolen more than 19,000 feet of copper wire from our street lights and we have to replace them."

In addition to problems caused by the thefts, Dunn said lights are off on a small section of the highway - between East Airport Road and the Roebuck Industrial Park - where road resurfacing, drainage improvements and other construction is ongoing. Restoration in that area should be completed shortly, Dunn said.

She said the authority is anxious to relight the highway, but it will take some time before all the work is completed.

She said WAPA has partnered with Innovative - which has also been hit by copper thieves - in creating several public service announcements and WAPA is continuing to ask the community to report suspicious activity involving utility tampering to law enforcement.

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi.

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