County commissioners are concerned diverted traffic will cause undue damage.

FAIRFAX -- County commissioners in two counties say they dread what increased traffic will do to their roads and a county bridge when a major state bridge is closed Tuesday.

They know the traffic will come when the Arkansas River bridge at Ralston is closed for a $684,000 repair project.

The 1,400-foot-long Ralston bridge is on Oklahoma 18 and is a vital link for traffic between Fairfax and Osage County to the north and Pawnee and Pawnee County to the south.

State highway officials posted signs advising motorists the two- lane Ralston bridge will be closed July 18 to Aug. 31.

After the bridge is closed, north-south traffic officially is to detour as far away as Ponca City or Hominy on state highways. Residents in Ralston and Fairfax will have to take either the long state highway detour or a shorter unofficial detour on county roads.

But local residents probably will use the shorter detour, said Pawnee County Commissioner Royce Brien and Osage County Commissioner Jess Ballard.

That shorter route involves the narrow Belford bridge over the Arkansas River west of Ralston, the commissioners said.

Only county roads lead to the Belford bridge, which once linked the former community of Belford with both counties, said Ballard.

Brien said the increased traffic means the three miles of Pawnee County road to the bridge will be worn down.

"People aren't going to drive to Ponca City or Hominy" on the state's detour, said Brien. "I know they're going to use the Belford route."

Brien said he tried unsuccessfully to get the state to help prepare his chip-seal road to handle the increased traffic. He said Pawnee County doesn't have the money to repair the road or monitor increased traffic.

The Belford bridge was once a state bridge before Oklahoma 18 was realigned, but has been under county control for several decades.

With steel beams and a concrete deck, the Belford bridge has a "good" rating, said Justin Magee, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. It is 18 feet wide, or equal to a narrow two-lane bridge, he said.

The Belford bridge, built in 1927, has a 15-ton load limit, which limits it to cars and pickups. It is 2,200 feet long, and cost $256,000 to build 72 years ago, Magee said.

Still, the county commissioners worry about impacts of the increased traffic.

"One of my nightmares is when you get more traffic, you'll get more accidents," Brien said. And Brien said he doesn't have any road workers to stay at the narrow bridge and control traffic.

Because it is a narrow bridge, Ballard said that a driver will have to pay attention and not go on the bridge if he sees another driver coming at him.

"People will have to act like they've got some sense," Ballard said.

Usually, the Belford bridge carries about 500 vehicles a day, and Brien expects the Ralston bridge closing will add considerable traffic to the Belford bridge.

One other river crossing is at Blackburn, but that, too, is an older one-lane steel bridge with an asphalt deck, which Brien cautions against using.

Magee said at least one lane of the Ralston bridge is to be opened in time for Woodland (Fairfax-Ralston) school classes which start Aug. 14.

The Ralston bridge work is being done by Gibson and Associates Inc. of Balch Springs, Texas, near Dallas, said Magee.

The company will repair deck beams on the 24-foot-wide span and reopen one lane to traffic Aug. 16, according to its contract, said Magee. However, the company would be given a $10,000 bonus for each day the lane is open earlier, with a $50,000, limit, Ma gee said.

The entire project is to be finished by the end of August. Then the bridge's load limit will jump back to its original 23 tons. It was reduced to 10 tons in March when bad beams were found under the deck.

Ralph Marler, World staff writer, can be reached at 581-8480 or via e-mail at ralph.marler@tulsaworld.com .