Oklahoma cities reeling from sudden bridge closure

By BAILEY ELISE McBRIDE, AP Published: March 21, 2014
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The Jan. 31 closure of the U.S. 77/State Highway 39 bridge over the Canadian River has created a huge hardship for residents of Purcell and Lexington, who must now drive 40 miles to get from one community to the other — a trip that previously was just a 2-mile jaunt. OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES PHOTO
  Ty Russell
The Jan. 31 closure of the U.S. 77/State Highway 39 bridge over the Canadian River has created a huge hardship for residents of Purcell and Lexington, who must now drive 40 miles to get from one community to the other — a trip that previously was just a 2-mile jaunt. OKLAHOMAN ARCHIVES PHOTO Ty Russell

PURCELL — Kay Collett once enjoyed a commute that would be the envy of many: cross a river, hang a left at the end of the bridge and walk into the bank branch she can see from her back porch. Total travel time: two minutes, maybe three if there’s traffic.

Since highway officials barricaded the bridge linking her tiny town of Lexington to Purcell, where she works, though, her commute has been akin to those endured by people in bigger cities, such as Oklahoma City 40 miles to the north.

“We’re basically one community … separated by a river and a mile-long bridge and we can’t get to where we want to go,” Collett said.

With roughly 6,000 residents, Purcell is a hub for the area and depends on people from Lexington and other communities east of the Canadian River to shop in its stores, eat in its restaurants and visit its doctors.

The director of the Purcell hospital told City Council members this month that its revenues had dropped, as a quarter of its patients came from across the river.

“Unless something happens quickly, they’re going to be in real trouble,” Lexington City Manager Charlie McCown said. “And I can’t tell you what a difficult challenge it would be to adjust to living in this environment without a hospital close by.”

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation closed the 76-year-old James C. Nance Memorial Bridge on Jan. 31 for emergency repairs after finding 10 cracks and 260 potential flaws. Repair crews had hoped to open the span by Easter but more cracks appeared after repairs began, pushing the completion date back to June.

Travel between the towns now goes through Norman, about 15 miles to the north, or across a bridge near Byars, about 20 miles southeast, that many say is in worse shape than the shuttered span. Motorists who contributed to the 9,000 crossings daily on the closed bridge have been encouraged to allow for an extra hour to move between the towns.

Collett, who takes a state-provided shuttle bus to and from work now, is troubled that the state hasn’t figured out another way to connect Purcell with Lexington’s roughly 2,200 residents until the repairs are finished.

“I feel very let down, like they basically don’t care about us,” she said.

John D. Montgomery, publisher of the Purcell Register, said the mood is “just melancholy” in the town.

“It’s kind of like cutting off a lifeline — we’re so dependent on the business from Lexington,” Montgomery said. “Every single person is completely frustrated.”



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