Copper thieves leave 6th Street Bridge — the 'Ribbon of Light' — completely in the dark

Los Angeles, CA - December 21:Two arches, left, are dark on the 6th Street Bridge because of copper wire thieves on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA.(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Two arches on the 6th Street Viaduct were not lighted on Dec. 21. Now all the lights on the bridge's 10 sets of arches are completely out due to copper wire theft. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The 6th Street Viaduct, dubbed the "Ribbon of Light" for its illuminated tilted arches, is now completely in the dark.

Billy Avellan, who walks the bridge daily from his home in downtown Los Angeles to the city's historic Eastside, said he's watched as thieves have gradually stripped miles of copper wiring from lights on the structure for months. He first noticed people stealing the wires in October, and while he's reported it to the city and Police Department, the theft has continued, even in broad daylight, he said.

First, they targeted the lights along the bridge's walkway, then the light poles and, most recently, the wiring that helps power the LEDs that brightened the 10 sets of arches.

Now, Avellan says, it's "no man's land."

"I used to walk it at night all the time," the 52-year-old said. "It was beautiful. It was well-lit. Some people might say it was too well-lit, but now it's completely dark and that's sad."

Copper wire theft has been a growing problem in the region for years, with thieves disabling streetlights and rail lines to pilfer their conductive wiring, which can fetch several dollars per pound at recycling centers.

Five years ago, between 500 and 600 cases of copper wire theft were reported annually. In the last year, there have been 6,713 cases, with repair costs exceeding $17 million in Los Angeles, Councilman Kevin de León said during a news conference in January.

Read more: L.A. is being 'stripped for parts.' Here's what the City Council wants to do about it

At that time, 38,000 feet — roughly seven miles — of copper wire had been purloined from the 6th Street Bridge, probably fetching about $11,000, De León said. He estimated that fixing the lights would cost the taxpayers about $2.5 million.

But now even more copper wire appears to be gone.

"We have to understand this is not merely about stealing copper wire, because it goes beyond that," De León said in January. "Thieves are literally picking our city apart for parts to sell for scraps."

Utility boxes have been forced open, and wires can be seen poking out of the ground in several areas across the bridge, Avellan said.

It is not clear how long it will take officials to fix the lights on the bridge or how much the repair will cost. A representative for De León could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

In February, the Los Angeles City Council created a task force with the Police Department and the Bureau of Street Lighting and established a rewards program to encourage the public to submit information on thefts. Over the course of less than two weeks in late February and early March, the bureau reported eight incidents of theft and 35 incidents of vandalism related to city-owned lights through an online reporting database, according to a Police Commission report in April.

It is not clear whether anyone has been arrested in connection with the copper wire thefts on the bridge. Officials with the LAPD did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Some city officials have advocated for looking into replacing copper wires with solar-powered lighting to eliminate the problem. Many have also said enforcement actions should be focused on the purchasers of the copper wire, who are benefiting from stolen goods. The task force is expected to inspect recycling centers that accept metals as part of the prevention and enforcement efforts, according to the commission report.

Still, the issue has persisted.

Read more: Copper thieves strike again, mutilating a 100-year-old monument in MacArthur Park

City officials couldn't confirm Wednesday how much copper had been stolen from the bridge.

"The Bureau of Street Lighting is coordinating closely with the Council Office, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, the LAPD and the Bureau of Engineering on plans to make repairs and to curb the theft and vandalism which are causing the outages," Tonya Shelton, a spokesperson for the L.A. Department of Public Works, said in a statement.

Shelton encouraged anyone who witnesses wire theft or vandalism to report it to 911.

The $588-million viaduct, which former Mayor Eric Garcetti once called a "love letter to the city," in 2022 replaced a beloved 1932 bridge that had been deteriorating for years.

The opening of the 6th Street Bridge was marked by jubilant celebration, but almost immediately the landmark became the setting for social media stunts and other illegal activity.

Read more: From humble overpasses to architectural gems: Explore L.A.’s most beautiful bridges

In July 2022, the month it opened, the LAPD shut the bridge down four nights out of five and the Bureau of Engineering installed raised reflective markers in the middle of the street to discourage drivers from doing doughnuts. People have climbed up on the massive arches to take photos. Last May, a teen died after falling from one of the arches. In April, a man in his 30s was killed in a hit-and-run on the bridge.

On Wednesday morning, as Avellan prepared for his daily jaunt across the viaduct, he expressed fear that safety problems would get worse on the darkened bridge. Still, he looks forward to his walks, even though he now takes them earlier in the day.

"It's a good way to get some steps in and take in the sights of our wonderful city," he said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.