Mike Phillips fears a closed bridge will equal closed doors.
What normally would be at most a 30-minute round trip has turned into a two-hour ordeal for anyone wanting to travel on U.S. 77/State Highway 39 over the James C. Nance Bridge that links Purcell and Lexington. That includes Phillips, 50, who worries his Purcell furniture store may not survive the closure.
Friday, the Oklahoma Transportation Department ordered the 76-year-old bridge closed until further notice after finding 22 cracks in the beams of the truss system spanning the Canadian River. Residents on both ends of the closed bridge fear businesses will be hurt, cutoff employees could lose jobs and getting critical services and help in emergency situations could be more difficult.
“That bridge was a vital pipeline, and now it's gone,” Phillips said Monday as he sat on a couch in his store showroom empty of customers. “What are we going to do now?”
Friday, state Transportation Department officials said they are expediting emergency repairs. For now, crews are working to keep the cracks from getting any bigger, and a contract to repair the fissures could be awarded in March, officials said.
The cracks in the beams are a recent development but are severe enough that experts fear the bridge could collapse under its own weight much like the Minnesota I-35W Bridge that collapsed in 2007. The two bridges have a similar design.
Plans to replace the Nance bridge are in the early stages, but construction isn't likely to take place for years because of the estimated $40 million price tag, said Mike Patterson, Transportation Department director.
More than 10,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day, according to transportation officials.
“We will do repairs as quickly as possible,” Patterson said.
“We do know the impacts to the community.”
Phillips, who has owned Tyler Furniture on the corner of Main Street and Canadian in Purcell for 33 years, said he wonders if he'll have to rethink his business strategy of offering free shipping.
His normal 3-mile commute between the two towns has turned into nearly a 100-mile trek that requires far more gas and puts a lot more wear and tear on his delivery vehicle.
To drop off a furniture order to a longtime Lexington customer on Saturday, Phillips drove north on Interstate 35 to State Highway 9 in Norman and then back south on U.S. 77. The trip took two hours.
“This is costing me,” Phillips said.
“I'm not real happy, and I'm concerned I could lose customers over it. It could really cost all of us in the long run.”
Across snowy Main Street, Kathy Grider was putting the finishing touches on Sam Stark's haircut Monday afternoon. Stark and his wife, Jo, usually visit Purcell on Tuesday to get her hair done. Because of the long drive from their Lexington home and the impending winter storms, Grider opened the shop for them Monday.
Long hair is the least of the Stark's concerns though.
Saturday, his wife ran out of the pain medication she'd been prescribed after a recent medical procedure.
Sam Stark, 81, had no other option than to make the long drive to the Purcell Municipal Hospital.
“They need to get it fixed and quick,” Stark said. “We always said how old that bridge was and that we thought any day it would kill someone. But why did they wait so long?”
Lexington resident James Bebout said he's not sure whether state officials really are aware of how much the loss of the bridge will affect the community.
Bebout, 54, said he has many friends that probably will lose their jobs or have to relocate because it will cost them more to commute to Purcell everyday than they earn at their mostly minimum-wage jobs.
“There is no reason why it should've gotten this bad,” Bebout said. “It is the state's job to provide us safe access instead of shutting down. They are ruining lives.”