Caltrans spends about $2 million a year in replacing stolen copper wiring that powers metering lights, traffic signals, lights on freeway signs and city streetlights.
Spokesman Bob Haus said in the last seven years, the state has spent $27 million on the thorny and expensive problem.
There is no real way to stop the problem completely, but Caltrans has been 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.
In the Bay Area, the Bay Area Newspaper Group first reported that a total of 59 meters have been vandalized in over the past year, and Caltrans has replaced the wiring at just 18. It can take three to four months to make repairs, and typically costs $35,000 to fix one meter.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau ranked California fourth in the United States for the most metal theft claims between 2009 and 2011, and probably only a fraction of all thefts are ever reported.
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, according to the newspaper group.
Why are thieves pilfering the copper? Copper has gone for as much as $4 a pound at salvage yards, almost three times the price four years ago.