ATLANTA - Georgia transportation officials reported no major delays during the first rush hour since the Interstate 85 overpass reopened for traffic after collapsing in a massive fire.
All lanes of I-85 at Piedmont Road were reopened over the weekend and available for Monday morning's commute. Our SKYFOX Drone flew over the road Monday morning as commuters traveled over the newly repaired interstate.
The southbound lanes opened at 6 p.m. on Saturday, with drivers cheering and honking as they passed over the stretch of freeway over Piedmont Road that had been shut down for six weeks. The northbound roadway reopened to traffic just after 7 p.m. Friday, as Atlanta police cruisers led the first pack of cars over the new section of I-85.
The weekend kicked off the beginning of the end of weeks of frustration and extended commutes.
"It was awesome, I was smiling in real life," said one Uber driver, who drove over I-85 and was glad to start driving as usual.
Drivers like E'lon Sanders struggled to get around.
“I had to take a lot of shortcuts through Cheshire Bridge and some back roads,” said Sanders.
Craig Strickland said his commute got more than a half hour longer.
“I'd get hung up in traffic trying to get out of the city and it would take me an extra 30 or 40 minutes to get where I'm going,” said Strickland.
With crews working around the clock and $3 million in incentives, the contractor finished the job a month ahead of the initial June 15 deadline.
“When this started it was inconceivable it could be done this quick,” said the Dan Garcia, the President of CW Matthews.
Last week, ahead of the interstate reopening, state officials assured drivers that the safety of the structure was not compromised in the rush to get the job done.
“It is absolutely safe. We've had at least ten inspectors a day, totally some 2,500 man-hours of inspection,” said Georgia DOT Commissioner Russell McMurray.
Still, some drivers, like E'lon Sanders said they are going to wait awhile before venturing across.
“I don't trust it, I'm going to wait another two weeks to get the kinks out, get some traction on that road,” said Sanders.
Robert Phelps on the other hand, who was sitting in Friday afternoon traffic, said he will use it as soon as possible.
“I'll go over anything, even if it's a singing bridge at this point,” said Phelps.
"This is a time to say thank you because this is an extraordinarily short period of time to complete such a major project," Governor Deal said on Wednesday.
The I-85 viaduct has been shut down since March 30 when a massive fire caused a portion of the interstate to collapse. The damage was so extensive that crews had to repair the interstate in both directions.
I-85 reopened more than a month ahead of schedule and Governor Deal said the main reason is due to incentives for the contractor, C.W. Matthews. The estimated financial impact is about $27 million in motorist savings for having completed the project earlier than the original completion date, which was June 15.
"When we confront tragedies and disasters, we can respond and we can respond quickly and in a very timely fashion," Deal said, commending the state of Georgia and all those involved in the repairs. “To be able to completely demolish the damaged section of a bridge and totally replace it and open it again for business as usual in just six short weeks, we may have set some records in the process of doing that."
The metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce released the following statement regarding the reopening:
“The efficiency, speed and commitment shown by all involved in the repair of I-85 is worth applauding. The work done has given us a glimpse into our region’s resiliency.
“After that section of the highway re-opens, it's important that we sustain the mode-shift we saw. MARTA rail ridership increased more than 25 percent, our businesses embraced flexible working and our citizens encouraged their neighbors to use transit and ride-sharing. Let’s continue to be creative and avoid adding congestion to our roadways during peak periods.
“The real lesson we’ve learned is that expanding transit across our region is a must. This is critical when it comes to allowing businesses to move freight efficiently – an important factor in driving our economy.”
Now that I-85 is open, the city of Atlanta said they are lifting the executive order suspending non-emergency construction activity and new construction permits. The moratorium was put into place to help further ease roadway congestion. The city said it will also remove the “No Thru Traffic” signs posted in designated areas meant to detract from a never-ending parade of detouring commuters.
“I want to thank our GDOT partners for working around the clock to repair and open Interstate 85 way ahead of schedule,” Mayor Reed was quoted as saying in a release sent to FOX 5 News. “I also want to thank our residents, visitors and public employees for their patience during a time when normal travel routes throughout the city had to be adjusted.”
Mayor Reed pushed hard during the six-week period for commuters and visitors to consider taking mass transit alternatives such as MARTA and the Atlanta Steetcar which appears to some to have worked. The Atlanta Regional Commission released numbers this week which showed seven MARTA train stations had a spike of 25 percent or more in ridership during the traffic crisis. Six of those stations were north of the destroyed overpasses.
The biggest increases in ridership according to ARC were:
- Brookhaven - 67 percent
- Dome - 57 percent
- Sandy Springs - 43 percent
- Chamblee - 33 percent
- Buckhead - 30 percent
- Medical Center - 30 percent
- Dunwoody - 26 percent
- Lenox - 24 percent
- Doraville - 20 percent
- Midtown - 19 percent
- King Memorial - 18 percent
- North Springs - 18 percent
ARC also found that the remain major arteries increased in traffic by a minimum of 30 percent in volume, with most of that being felt on the eastern half of the I-285 perimeter.
Friday, Gwinnett County Transit announced plans to return to their pre-collapse routine. The move dissolves routes from the Gwinnett Park & Ride lots directly to the Chamblee and Doraville MARTA stations, opting to take the buses once again the full way into the city.
“The additional routes were only intended for the short-term,” said Karen Winger, Gwinnett County’s Transit Division director was quoted as saying in a release sent to FOX 5 News. “With the reopening of I-85, those direct routes are discontinued.”
Winger said their customers can get the latest information on bus routes at gctransit.com.
Businesses along the I-85 corridor are ready to have things return to normal next week. A survey by Invest Atlanta found that some 75 percent of the businesses in the area experience a significant loss in customers, some leading to a large revenue gap for the six weeks the interstate was impassable.
But now eyes are turning to what is next for the I-85 corridor. GDOT was able to jump start a paving project for the northeast corridor which could help bring up fall deadline, but should at least ease the impact of the project.
Some mass transit proponents had hoped the incident would be a catalyst in bringing the more heavily populated counties outside of the perimeter into MARTA or at least begin the conversation of a commuter rail system into the city. But the issue on the state level would have to wait until the next legislative session begins next year.
Still, the more immediate issue will likely be the legal action against those believed to be responsible for the disaster.
The man accused of starting a fire that caused the collapse of Interstate 85 was released from the Fulton County Jail on April 19.
Basil Eleby, 39, is being charged with first-degree arson and first-degree criminal damage to property. Eleby's attorneys pleaded not guilty in the high profile case and have said he will not be used as a scapegoat in the case.
Following the March 30 bridge collapse, the fire department located 39-year-old Sophia Brauer and 57-year-old Barry Andrew Thomas. While conducting interviews with the two individuals in conjunction with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, Thomas stated he witnessed Eleby set a chair on fire after he placed it on top of a shopping cart. Investigators concluded that initial fire led to the collapse of the I-85 bridge.
Authorities located Eleby and said he had talked about smoking crack prior to the fire that broke under the I-85 bridge in an area where the state of Georgia stores noncombustible construction materials. He was subsequently arrested.