Transportation Secretary Chao praises MARTA’s response to I-85 fire

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elain Chao chats with vendors at an American Public Transportation Association conference in Atlanta Wednesday. David Wickert/ dwickert@ajc.com

The federal government’s top transportation official called mass transit a critical part of the nation’s infrastructure Wednesday, citing Atlanta as a shining example.

Speaking to a national conference for transit professionals at the Georgia World Congress Center, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao praised MARTA's role in serving Atlanta commuters after the collapse of the I-85 bridge in Buckhead last spring.

Chao called MARTA’s efforts “an excellent example of how Americans’ transit systems are a critical part of our transportation system.”

It was the latest federal praise for the region's response to the collapse of a major highway into the heart of Atlanta. In March, a fire allegedly set by a homeless man engulfed I-85 near Piedmont Road, causing a span longer than a football field to collapse.

Over the next six weeks, a contractor working for the Georgia Department of Transportation worked round the clock to rebuild the bridge. It reopened in May, weeks ahead of schedule.

The reconstruction effort drew widespread praise. At a meeting of state transportation officials, President Donald Trump singled out GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry for the agency's quick response – made possible by millions of dollars in federal funding. Chao who visited Atlanta herself shortly after the bridge reopened, also praised the quick reconstruction.

On Wednesday, she thanked departing MARTA CEO Keith Parker for the agency's effort to accommodate new passengers who gave transit a shot as Atlanta highways became a commuting nightmare during the I-85 reconstruction.

“Keith Parker and his department gave Atlantans an option to move at a time when that critical artery, I-85, wasn’t available,” Chao said.

The transportation secretary spoke to several hundred people attending an American Public Transportation Association conference. She also touted Trump's plan to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure over the next 10 years. That plan has taken a back seat to other administration priorities in recent months, including health care and tax reform.

The president’s proposed 2018 budget proposed steep cuts for some transit programs that metro Atlanta officials are counting on for future MARTA and other transit expansions across the region. Congress ultimately will write and approve a budget.

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