I-40 traffic detours causing headaches for small towns

Friday, May 31st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GORE, Okla. (AP) _ Gore, population 700, was once pretty far off the beaten path.

But now thousands of tractor-trailers, motor homes and pickup trucks with out-of-state plates are invading the Trout Capital of Oklahoma. And the travelers aren't coming to fish.

The deadly bridge collapse on Interstate 40 last weekend is forcing drivers to detour through Gore, where the big rigs are tearing up streets and trying to squeeze around tight curves made for going 30 mph.

For the next four to six months _ the time it takes to repair the bridge over the Arkansas River _ traffic will rumble through Gore and other little towns amid the cornfields and cattle ranches of eastern Oklahoma's green hills.

Flashing orange signs direct the 20,000 vehicles zooming along I-40, a major east-west artery, off the highway and onto winding, two-lane roads.

This week, traffic pushing west through Gore jammed up for miles along U.S. Highway 64 as tractor-trailers squeaked around a tight curve next to a snowcone stand and a flower shop. The line of cars stretched across the railroad tracks, and when a train came, the vehicles moved just in time.

A truck that had gotten trapped on the tracks broke the wooden crossbar as it moved out of the way.

``We almost had two cars cut in half,'' said city maintenance supervisor Dana Tracy. ``We're not set up for all this traffic.''

A new spray-painted sign warns motorists not to stop on the tracks.

State transportation officials tore up a curb in the center of town so tractor-trailers would have an easier time. Still, the police chief or one of the town's three other officers directs traffic so two big rigs don't meet at the corner.

In last weekend's bridge accident, a barge rammed the span Sunday morning, knocking out a 500-foot section of highway and sending 10 vehicles plunging into the muddy water.

Mayor Larry Pack said folks in Gore are thinking about the 14 people who died, not about the traffic. ``This is minor compared to what those people went through,'' he said.

The mayor said the town might get an economic boost from the traffic, which has gone from a few hundred vehicles a day to about 10,000. A few gas stations and convenience stores on the 10-mile detour are getting a bit more business.

``But some people don't like to get out of the line of traffic because it's hard to get back in,'' Pack said.

A second detour takes travelers south of the interstate for 60 miles, mostly on State Highway 9. Transportation officials plan to erect more stop signs and warning lights after a truck going too fast flipped over Wednesday near Keota.

In Stigler, population 2,500, police reset the town's two stoplights to keep traffic flowing. That is annoying locals who have to wait longer on side streets.

``Your elderly folks are kind of upset,'' said Kenny Medlock, a police officer. ``But we don't like them accidents.''

The Oklahoma Department of Transportation asked long-distance travelers to avoid eastern Oklahoma if possible by taking another east-west interstate. Spokeswoman Terri Angier said travelers should bring maps.

``We're talking about summer vacation,'' she said. ``People are driving from coast to coast and Interstate 40 is down. That's a major national emergency.''

Stan Cievkowski, who was hauling a load of phosphoric acid to Tulsa, said truckers are not complaining about the delays on their CB radios.

``You got to do what you got to do to get the delivery done,'' he said, using a truck stop squeegee to clean dirt off his headlights.