CLOSURE of a bridge linking Purcell and Lexington poses a major hardship on local citizens. Until the bridge is repaired, they’re forced to drive 30 or more miles for a journey that would normally be less than two miles.
The bridge is 76 years old and plagued by structural issues that made its closure and repair mandatory. As hard as this is on the people who regularly make the crossing, it’s temporary. The situation offers the advantage of a fast-tracked repair because the bridge is owned by the state. Two months after the closing, the end is in sight: A June reopening is targeted.
Were this bridge not part of the highway system and state-owned, it could be years before the structure was repaired. That’s precisely the scenario county commissioners face across Oklahoma.
The National Association of Counties (NACO) says county governments — not the state — are responsible for 70 percent of public road miles and 59 percent of all bridges statewide. By comparison, counties nationwide own, on average, 45 percent of public road miles and 39 percent of bridges.
Counties get local, state and federal funds to maintain roads and bridges, but are they getting enough? Oklahoma County Commissioner Ray Vaughn, an Edmond Republican, is among commissioners frustrated by their inability to keep bridges open and replace bad ones.
In the Deer Creek area, streams traversed by county bridges are subject to periodic flooding. This has led to road closings that can last for days. Upgrading the bridges would cost $12 million to $22 million in just this one area.
“The county does not have access to a funding program of this magnitude,” Vaughn told us. “Thus, the issue persists.” Indeed, the next big rainfall will bring a familiar sight to those living in northwest Oklahoma County — barricades preventing travel until flooding subsides.
Bridges are also under threat in the eastern part of the county because of natural shifts in the North Canadian River floodplain. “These river bridges would be difficult to replace due to funding limitations,” Vaughn said.
Metropolitan areas have the advantage of offering numerous alternative routes when roads and bridges are closed. This isn’t always the cases in more rural areas, where a bridge closing can mean that getting to work requires hundreds of extra miles of driving per week. And unlike the Purcell-Lexington case, these bridges aren’t fast-tracked for repair or replacement.
We won’t make the case that any county-owned bridge in Oklahoma is as critical as most state-owned structures on the highway system. But given that Oklahoma has an inordinately large share of roads and bridges maintained by county governments, a better approach is needed to keep the traffic moving.
Last year, House Bill 1080 proposed moving 5 percent of license tag fees from the state’s general fund to county governments. A NACO report said this would raise $30 million in new revenue for counties. HB 1080 never made it into law.
Vaughn is realistic in saying it has no chance this year because of other spending priorities. Indeed, lawmakers are looking at ways to spend less on roads and bridges, by diverting money to common schools.
Some lawmakers think counties are getting plenty of money for roads and bridges already. The County Highway Fund — just one of the sources of county transportation spending — raised $265.6 million in 2013.
But the situation in Oklahoma County is particularly acute. It’s one of the few counties among Oklahoma’s 77 that doesn’t have a county sales tax. High traffic volume here is routine. Funding isn’t keeping up with growth.
Absent a new funding source, reopening the Purcell-Lexington bridge may seem like a blink of the eye compared with what county bridge users face in coming years.