LEXINGTON — Gov. Mary Fallin on Friday declared a State of Emergency for Cleveland and McClain counties and promised the full force of state government in quickly repairing and eventually rebuilding the James C. Nance bridge which carries 9,000 motorists a day over the Canadian River.
Officials hope to begin emergency repairs by the evening of Feb. 14 on the 76-year-old Highway 77 and Highway 39 span linking Lexington and Purcell. Engineers anticipate reopening it first to passenger cars in a matter of weeks and all vehicles within four months. In the meantime, no vehicles or even pedestrians will be allowed on the 3,800 foot bridge.
Officials hinted at planning for a new bridge, a project that could take up to 10 years and $40 million. The bridge is one of about 500 on the state’s list of structurally deficient bridges and officials have been monitoring it due to age and known weaknesses. The bridge’s load limit was lowered Jan. 20 before it was shut down completely on Jan. 31.
Before her press briefing, Gov. Fallin stopped at the east end of the snow-covered bridge to assess the situation with Oklahoma Department of Transportation engineers, state Adjutant Gen. Myles Deering, District 3 Cleveland County Commissioner Rusty Sullivan, emergency managers and a handful of state legislators.
“It is critical that we get a bridge back open as soon as possible,” Gov. Fallin told reporters and local officials inside the Lexington Fire Station. “We understand the closing of the bridge has created a hardship in these two communities.”
Officials said they explored all possibilities, including a low-water crossing, ferry and “Duck” transport vehicles. The governor even joked about a zipline.
“We clearly explored every idea we could think of,” she said.
Fallin said she understands the strain on individual, business and community resources brought on by the closing, but the bridge was at risk of collapsing and public safety is paramount.
“The possibility of any loss of life is devastating. We don’t ever want a disaster like that to happen,” she said, referring to the collapse of a similar bridge in Minnesota that took 13 lives and injured 145 persons in 2007.
ODOT Chief Engineer Casey Shell said private contractors will bid on the fast-track repair project next week. A $2,500-per-hour completion bonus or penalty will be included as an incentive to get the project done quickly.
Shell said that 22 potential cracks were discovered in the manganese alloy structure during an inspection that followed a $1.2 million repair project.Those cracks formed near welds that were part of a previous rehabilitation project.
He said the obsolete metal was not conducive to welding and that they anticipate it will cost $3 million to repair the bridge. Officials said they do not believe they will need additional appropriations to cover the repairs.
In the meantime, the State Department of Transportation will begin operating free shuttle services between Lexington and Purcell.
The buses will run between the Flex Works parking lot at 925 S. Green Ave. in Purcell and the First Baptist Church, 900 E. Broadway, in Lexington. Daily schedules are being developed.
Additionally, the Governor’s declaration allows Cleveland and McClain counties, as well as the town of Lexington and the city of Purcell, to be reimbursed $100,000 each for their extra expenses.
Purcell Mayor David Lee said he is beginning to hear concerns about customers moving their business out of Purcell. He has cautioned the city manager about potential revenue shortfalls due to the loss of sales tax.
“We appreciate all that ODOT is doing but it’s going to be a burden on us for some time,” Green said.
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