Friday, June 17, 2011 | 2 a.m.
U.S. 95 in northwest Las Vegas
It’s nothing new for freeway construction projects to create problems for motorists, but transportation officials are having their own headaches as they widen U.S. 95 in northwest Las Vegas.
The issues aren’t from traffic jams or the usual construction delays — although those do exist. Instead, the Nevada Transportation Department’s contractor is facing problems from theft and vandalism.
The thieves aren’t just getting away with thousands of dollars worth of equipment and materials on a taxpayer-funded project, they’re potentially threatening public safety.
“We’re trying to stop this, but it’s just running rampant,” said Joe Riggs, project manager for Capriati Construction, which has the $89 million contract to widen U.S. 95 from Washington Avenue to Ann Road.
Although this is a Transportation Department project funded with state and federal money, the cost of replacing lost equipment and parts falls on the contractor, but the department is concerned about the possibility of delays and safety, spokeswoman Michelle Booth said.
Riggs said the cost of missing materials is unlikely to be passed on to taxpayers directly, but if the thefts continue at current levels they could delay completion of the project, which is on track to be finished early next summer.
The thefts on this project demonstrate how difficult it can be to protect resources in the public right of way.
One project subcontractor estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of steel rebar have disappeared from the construction area in the past week alone. A few weeks ago someone stole the battery out of his forklift.
Other subcontractors have reported losing thousands of dollars in copper wiring, aluminum for concrete frames and thousands of gallons of fuel, sucked out of parked equipment.
Most surprising is when the wires are stolen after they are installed, sometimes requiring the thief to cut through some carrying electricity. On occasion, freeway lights have gone out, making the area more dangerous for motorists.
Numerous batteries have been stolen out of portable message signs that alert travelers of shifting lanes and changing work zones. “And then we’re liable (if there’s an accident) since the sign wasn’t on,” said Tim Sessions, assistant project manager.
The construction has also required workers to dig up fiber optic cables that allow traffic officials and the Nevada Highway Patrol to access to freeway traffic cameras. With those wires temporarily exposed aboveground, they have also become a target of thieves, even though they have little resale value.
“They’re scrapping up everything they can get a nickel for,” said Metro Police Sgt. E.P. Brown, who oversees the construction theft detail.
Brown said Metro has seen a small increase in cases of construction theft in recent years, despite the building slowdown. But the type of cases has changed, with large equipment, such as jackhammers and forklifts, missing less often while metal materials are being stolen more.
“A year ago when copper was worth less, you didn’t see people take copper from live wires. It wasn’t worth the risk,” he said.
Although dangerous, disconnecting, cutting and removing live wires can be done over subsequent nights when no one is around, Brown said. “These guys know what they’re doing; they’re not amateurs by any stretch.”
Metro works with local recycling yards to try to stop thieves from selling stolen items, and it recently held a meeting with 13 of the 15 yards in the valley to set up a more formal program than previously existed, Brown said.
The problem is that the material often does not show up in the yards in the same condition it was before it was stolen, such as when a 500-foot roll of insulated copper wire is stripped and cut into 10-foot sections and then sold to different yards, he said.
Metro is investigating the U.S. 95 thefts and is working with project officials to stop them, Brown said.
Officials declined to say exactly what police are doing to find and stop thieves, but some subcontractors have put security cameras in certain areas.
Workers have been waiting to fuel equipment during the day instead of overnight, taking up more time during work hours, and the project’s five water trucks are being parked overnight at an off-site location.
The project area, on two sides and in the middle of more than five miles of freeway, makes it difficult to secure everything.
“The nature of this job is such that it’s almost impossible to put security (guards) on it,” Riggs said.
And unlike some freeway projects, much of the construction area is near homes, apartments and residential streets, giving easy access.
“You can jump over somebody’s back wall and be right on the site,” Sessions said.
The Transportation Department sees problems with theft and vandalism on nearly every project, but “on that specific 95 job we’re having more problems than usual,” Booth said. “When there is easy access, it seems to happen more.”
Although there is no guarantee some theft isn’t an inside job, many workers are starting to feel the pain, since they are occasionally sent home without being paid when equipment or materials they need are missing, Riggs said.
Some employees, including Riggs, have started driving through the construction areas at night hoping to catch thieves.
After chatting with an employee who is preparing on the side for a mixed marital arts fight this weekend, Riggs said he would hate to get on the bad side of a construction worker who has a family to feed and has lost income because he couldn’t get his work done.
“We’ve got a lot of vigilantes out here, and we’ll catch somebody someday,” he said.