ATLANTA – Gov. Nathan Deal gave the city an update on where the bridge collapse repairs stand four days after a massive fire took out one of the major arteries into the heart of downtown and around the entire Metro Atlanta.
Deal and other state officials held a press conference Monday afternoon to address Interstate 85 bridge repair progress and outline additional steps being taken to reduce traffic and expedite construction.
“We’re going to take lemons and we’re going to turn it into lemonade,” Deal said about figuring out what’s next for Atlanta’s transportation.
As rush hour got underway Thursday, March 30, a massive fire was seen growing underneath the busy Atlanta interstate. About 90 minutes later, a portion of the bridge over GA 13, near Piedmont Road, collapsed.
Twelve hours later, as commuters hit the roads again, firefighters continued to extinguish the blaze that remains smoldering in several nooks and crannies of the rubble.
The cause of the fire and subsequent collapse have not been determined. But Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said that city officials have spoken with the FBI and "there is no evidence that this is related to terrorism."
With that said, Georgia Gov. Nathan Dea declared a state of emergency for Fulton County and urged drivers to avoid the large section of I-85 if at all possible Thursday night. State government agencies delayed opening until 10 a.m., and employees able to telecommute are encouraged to do so.
“The state is mobilizing all available resources to ensure public safety and minimize disruption of traffic as we continue emergency response efforts,” said Deal.
“The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is coordinating response efforts with the Georgia Department of Public Safety (DPS), the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency and other state and local officials. As this safety investigation and bridge assessment continues, we encourage the public to avoid the affected area, remain patient and allow first responders to perform their jobs. We will continue updating the public on alternative traffic routes and other information as it becomes available.”
And just after 7 p.m., the next day, police arrested three people connected to the fire.
Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) Commissioner Russell McMurry, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Col. Mark W. McDonough, and State Road and Tollway Authority Executive Director Chris Tomlinson joined Deal at the State Capitol Monday afternoon to brief residents and drivers in and around Metro Atlanta.
Over the weekend, Deal said, he and other state officials met after a phone call on Friday from President Trump in which he told Deal $10 million had already been authorized as an emergency expenditure by the federal government to help with the necessary repairs to the I-85 bridge.
Monday, he said, he sent a letter to the Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao asking for increased financial assistance to cover the cost of increased use of MARTA, buses and of Cobb and Gwinnett counties’ transit systems… “also asking them to wave the regulations for contracting bids and allow the state the flexibility to expedite the repair this section of the Interstate.”
Deal said that he anticipates using financial incentives for private contractors, DOT employees and GRTA employees and other state agencies who are involved in this process in order to “encourage and hopefully achieve a very early completion of the repairs.”
“We believe that will go a long way in speeding up the completion process.”
MARTA and GRTA ridership is up by 20 percent as of Friday, he said. He has also told their directors that the state will backfill costs using 2018 budget. He will, in fact, take a trip on MARTA on Tuesday, in an effort to report how the bridge collapse has affected the transit system.
“We are doing everything within our power to get things back to normal; to replace the road itself and the bridges; and I think you will be impressed with the reports you’re about to receive from the individuals who are directly on the front lines in achieving that goal,” Deal said.
There will be a press conference at held at 10 a.m., at GDOT on Tuesday with chief engineer, director of construction, state traffic engineer and McMurry, will discuss in detail, their progress and where they plan to be in the coming weeks.
“It has been one of a catastrophe that we’ve bene dealing with since Thursday, but I’m here to tell you, I feel very confident that we’ve hit our marks thus far and with confidence that we will continue to do so, so that 85 can be opened up as soon as possible.”
GDOT staff has worked around the clock, he said, inspecting, evaluating and designing – as well as demolition, which started Friday morning as soon as the blaze was fully extinguished, and ultimately construction.
Weather may put a damper on GDOT’s plans, however.
“We have severe weather moving through today so you have a lot of other factors on that. And until we get all the way down to the foundation on elements and be able to start back, we still don’t know exactly what we’re dealing with and that just takes time,” McMurry said.
Stay with 11Alive for daily and minute-to-minute coverage as the smoke clears and the city rebuilds.