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Associated Press
Workers repair the underside of the James C. Nance Memorial Bridge, which links Purcell, Okla. and Lexington, Okla., near Purcell, Okla., Monday, March 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Oklahoma cities reeling from sudden bridge closure

Associated Press
Workers repair the underside of the James C. Nance Memorial Bridge, which links Purcell, Okla. and Lexington, Okla., near Purcell, Okla., Monday, March 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

– 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."

City Manager Dale Bunn said Purcell is losing $150,000 to $200,000 in monthly sales tax revenue and that some retailers have reported a 50 percent drop in business.

"We believe the state is doing all it can safely for the bridge. However, what can they do for the businesses, Purcell Municipal Hospital and the lost city sales tax that is estimated to be down painfully for a community our size?" Bunn said.

Cara King, who owns Cara's Sweet Cafe in Purcell, said business was down by about a third and one of her employees can no longer make it to work.

"I know I have a group of customers who are not coming over here," King said. "In Purcell and Lexington there's not an alternate route that's a couple of miles around. That's the biggest thing, is just the inconvenience of it."

A Dollar General store is the closest thing that Lexington residents have to a grocery store, unless they want to drive 10 miles north to Noble. McCown said revenues are up at some Lexington stores, as people choose or are forced to shop locally.

The bridge was listed, along with 413 other Oklahoma bridges, in a 2013 Associated Press review of spans that were both structurally deficient and fracture critical.

Inspectors from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation found flaws in the bridge in January and attributed some of them to a botched welding job last year. Instead of strengthening the span, some welds weakened it.

Gov. Mary Fallin declared an emergency so repairs wouldn't have to wait for the full bid process and highway crews announced the bridge could reopen by Easter – before the additional problems popped up.

Collett said she is worried that someone could be stranded in an emergency. McCown, though, warned that traveling over an unsafe bridge poses its own risks.

"I was talking with a lady (on the day the bridge closed) and she was getting a little irate," McCown said. "I said, `Ma'am, I had much rather stand here and tell you I'm very sorry, but you have to drive back through Norman to get to Purcell, than to be assisting my police officers in picking your dead body up off the bottom of that river."'

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Follow Bailey Elise McBride on Twitter at https://twitter.com/baileyelise

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