LEXINGTON — About 300 people crowded into the Lexington Fire Station on Tuesday night to express their frustrations to state officials about the closing of the U.S. 77/State Highway 39 bridge that links Lexington and Purcell.
The Oklahoma Transportation Department closed the James C. Nance Bridge on Friday after an inspection revealed 22 cracks in the beams of the truss system that holds the 76-year-old bridge over the Canadian River.
The closure means motorists who can normally make the round trip between Lexington and Purcell in 30 minutes now must drive two hours using the quickest alternate route.
Frustrations boiled over at Tuesday's meeting as those most affected by the closure sought answers that Transportation Department officials couldn't always give.
“This has a profound effect on us,” Lexington School Superintendent Denny Price said. “We have students who can't get to class and teachers who are finding it difficult to get to work.”
Becky Deaton, who works at Delta Community Action, which serves hot meals to senior citizens, said she worries that Lexington's elderly residents won't be able to get their meals.
“What are they supposed to do?” she said. “What am I supposed to do? I live literally two miles from my job, but now it takes 40 minutes to get there.”
Paul Rachel, a division engineer with the Transportation Department, said officials know how devastating the closure is to both Lexington and Purcell.
“This is not a bridge to nowhere,” he said. “This is a bridge that connects two communities, and when it is out of service, we realize how devastating it is.”
Rachel said officials have tried through the years to always keep the bridge open even when it needed repairs. But the cracks found in the recent inspection were alarming, he said.
Experts fear the cracks could cause the bridge to collapse like Minnesota's Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed in 2007. The two bridges have a similar design.
The 3,700-foot-long bridge is “very unusual, very historic, and not an easy fix,” Rachel said.
Officials believe they can fix the bridge once they have arrested the cracking, but repairs could take months.
Tara Anderson, whose family lives in Purcell, said her 2-year-old son has been going to the same day care in Lexington since he was born. What was a 10-minute drive to a home day care operated by Deanna Jones now takes an hour and 45 minutes one way, she said.
“I'm heartbroken,” Anderson said. “This is just devastating. I don't know how long we can keep it up. The expense and the time it takes to get to day care are too much.”
Additionally, she worries that she is cut off from her son in case of an emergency.
“I couldn't get there fast enough,” she said.
Jones said three out of the five children she keeps are from Purcell.
“It's my livelihood,” she said.