The section of Interstate 85 in Atlanta destroyed by fire in late March reopened yesterday, a month ahead of the original schedule, ending six weeks of agony for already-stressed metro Atlanta commuters and easing the burden on motor carriers that found themselves suddenly coping with thousands of additional cars that had been diverted onto Atlanta's perimeter highway.
Crews working around the clock repaired the elevated span, which was allegedly set afire by a homeless person the evening of March 30. The northbound side of the span, weakened by the raging inferno, collapsed about an hour after the blaze started, shutting down the 10-lane artery in both directions just north of downtown. About 243,000 vehicles travel over the affected area alone each day, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation.
Workers were motivated by the state's promise of a $3 million incentive bonus for the contractors if the project was finished before May 25, the start of the Memorial Day weekend. A $1.5 million bonus would have been paid if the span had re-opened on May 25. The original date for completion was June 15.
Metro Atlanta is a hotbed for truck traffic heading in all four directions. However, commercial vehicles are banned from using the region's three primary interstates, I-85, I-75, and I-20, within its perimeter highway, I-285, unless drivers are making local pickups and deliveries. As a result, I-285 is chronically packed with tractor-trailers as drivers use the span to connect with other interstate highways.
Once beyond the perimeter, truckers can use I-75, which parallels I-85 through the city before branching off toward central Georgia and the west coast of Florida to the south, and toward Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan to the north and northwest. Interstate 20 is an east-west artery that heads toward Alabama to the west and Augusta, Ga., to the east. I-85 is a 668-mile span that runs north to Petersburg, Va., just south of Richmond, and south toward Montgomery, Ala.
The road closure cut off Atlanta's midtown, downtown, and southside areas to motorists driving from the city's northern suburbs. As a result, more car traffic was forced onto I-285 along with the multitude of trucks that navigate the thoroughfare each day. As a result, the westbound side of the perimeter that feeds into the northbound span of Interstate 75 would be routinely clogged with car and truck traffic as late as 8 p.m. on weeknights.