COLUMBIA — A metal pole at the corner of Bearfield and Churchill roads has stood bare for months — a painted name on the curb has served as the only label for the intersection since the street signs were stolen last fall.
From November 2007 to November 2008, approximately 1,730 street signs were replaced on Columbia streets, costing the city around $35,000 in new sign materials, said Jill Stedem, spokesperson for the Columbia Public Works Department, quoting figures from the Public Works Street Division database. No numbers for December were available.
Residents can submit reports of missing street signs at gocolumbiamo.com/PublicWorks, or by calling the Public Works Street Division at 874-6289.
Signs featuring beer names, such as Corona Road and Rolling Rock Drive, are among the most commonly stolen, Stedem said. But street signs in student neighborhoods, such as the duplexes around Bearfield, are also frequent targets, no matter the name.
“It’s not just the beer streets now,” Stedem said. “It’s citywide.”
Stedem doesn't know why the problem is growing. But students in the Bearfield neighborhood have a theory about street-sign theft in their neighborhood: It has become a tradition.
Stolen street signs hang in bedrooms and living rooms in many of the duplexes surrounding Bearfield. Some residents say that nearly every home in the student neighborhood has at least one street sign. A few students agreed to talk to the Missourian about street sign theft on the condition of anonymity. The possession of a stolen street sign or theft of a sign is a misdemeanor.
“It’s somewhat of a tradition to have a street sign from the street you live on, as well as one from Bearfield Road, " said Alex, an MU student and Bearfield resident. Although he has never stolen a sign himself, he has signs hanging in his house —"gifts" from a friend who had taken them from the neighborhood.
One MU student has taken so many street signs that he has lost count.
“I have no idea how many signs I have stolen, I lost track a long, long time ago,” Jeff, an MU senior, said. “I would guess it is somewhere in the area of 40. I would say I started stealing street signs around the start of my junior year, and for the most part stopped in the middle of my junior year.”
The process for stealing signs varies. Some use wrenches or other tools, but many simply jump up and rip the signs down.
“I generally would just run up to the pole, jump up and grab the sign,” Jeff said. “All you have to do is rip the sign in both directions and it will fall off. You wouldn't be able to do this if they made the signs of metal. But they're cheap, so it's easy.”
It may be a bit harder for students to simply rip down signs for much longer. The city switched to aluminum signs in September, and they are more durable than the fiberglass material that was previously used. Stedem said that while fiberglass is easy to break away from the poles, aluminum proves difficult.
The aluminum signs cost approximately $130 per sign after material, labor and all other expenses, while the fiberglass signs cost $100.
While the method for stealing the signs change, students agree about the common catalyst — alcohol.
“I mostly do it to get the signs for people that want them, since I haven't actually kept a single street sign that I have stolen,” Jeff said. “There was one night when I was just bored, though, and stole around two dozen. … Obviously there was a tiny bit of drinking involved that night.”
It may seem like college antics, but the theft of a street sign is a crime and can cause problems for emergency responders.
If response teams have to drive to an area where signs are missing, they cannot respond as quickly or as effectively as possible.
“We rely upon those signs to give us guidance,” said Steven Sapp, battalion chief of the Columbia Fire Department.
Sapp recalled an incident a year ago in which the Fire Department responded to a kitchen fire on South Drive. The sign for that street had been stolen, and the response team passed it, causing about one minute of delay.
Though the delay did not result in added damage in that case, a minute can be the difference between arriving on time and too late, fire officials say.
“In our business, seconds count,” Sapp said. “You’re literally putting somebody’s life in danger when you steal those signs.
Despite taking 40 or more signs, Jeff has never been caught.
“It is really easy to get away with since you can do it so fast,” he said. Jeff isn’t sure what the exact punishment for the theft would be, but “I heard someone say it was a felony, so good thing I never got caught.”
Generally, it's a misdemeanor rather than a felony, though the number of signs a person has in his or her possession and the person's criminal history might make it a more serious offense. Capt. Zim Schwartze said that police would generally write someone a ticket for stealing a sign or possessing a stolen one. The signs are city property, and the city started marking the signs on the back several years ago to ease prosecution.
Though they cost more, aluminum signs may prove to be worth the extra money. From April 1 to May 31, 2008, before the aluminum signs were implemented, the Public Works Department replaced 340 street signs. From Sept. 1 to Oct. 31, 2008, after the switch to aluminum was made, 160 street signs were replaced.
Stedem said that a more accurate comparison can be made once the Street Division can compare figures from 2008 to 2009.
“Anything they can do,” Sapp said about the upgrade to aluminum signs. “Hopefully, they’ll be a little harder to break off.”
Other alternatives have been proposed to hinder the theft of street signs, such as placing them on higher poles. Sapp said that raising street signs might also make them harder to see.
Stedem said that the idea of painting street names on curbs was brought before the council but never got traction. Painting street names on the curbs could provide drivers with a second reference for navigation. The idea presents its own problems: Curbs can be harder to see at night and can be blocked by cars. Also, curb paint would have to be maintained as exposure to weather causes it to fade.
“It’s not a perfect solution,” Sapp said.
Clearly, people do not realize the dangers that the loss of signs poses, he said, adding, “they don’t think about the consequences.”
“It’s not just a joke or a prank,” Stedem said. “It’s very serious, and it’s definitely a crime.”