ATLANTA - Metal thieves have stolen nearly 600 grates from storm drains on highways all across the metro area. The Georgia Department of Transportation reports all of the thefts have happened within the last three months.
"It's terrible for the taxpayers because we've got to replace those," said GDOT spokesperson Mark McKinnon. "It's a safety hazard. It's not a good thing. We're hoping to catch who's doing this."
McKinnon said each grate can weigh up to 200 pounds and cost up to $500 to replace. They cover up deep drainage holes along interstates. The worry is someone pulling off the road could catch a tire in one or, worse, step out of their vehicle and fall into one.
"It's not good at all," McKinnon said. "There's a lot of money being spent replacing something that shouldn't need to be replaced. You're talking about iron and steel storm grates."
McKinnon said this is similar to a situation three years ago when thieves made off with thousands of storm grates. This time, he hopes drivers will notice the thefts in progress and will call police.
"The taxpayers are having to pay for that," said McKinnon. "We have to replace those. It's not something that we can choose to replace. For safety reasons, we have no choice."
When crews notice or get a report of a stolen grate, the DOT moves in to cover the open drain with an old road sign and an orange cone to warn motorists about the hole. A number of these popped up on Interstate 75 southbound near Moores Mill Road.
During a vote last year, the state Legislature required the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to create a metal-theft recycling database to better track these kinds of crimes. However, the GBI said lawmakers never provided any funding, so that database still is not operational, though agents are working with another state to get the necessary software needed to create one.
GBI spokesperson John Bankhead said they will do the best they can without the funding and hope the money will come from somewhere.
"They were hoping when they passed it last year that the funding situation would improve," said Bankhead. "Apparently, it hasn't. So we'll just see what happens with respect to their decision to fund it."
"Sooner or later, we're going to catch them," said McKinnon. "Your sins will find you out, and we do believe we will catch whoever's doing this sooner or later."