Atlanta I-85 bridge collapse: And you thought traffic was bad before?

Demolition continues on Sunday on the section of I-85 that collapsed in a fire Thursday evening in Atlanta. As construction crews clear debris, traffic is stopped along northbound Piedmont Road. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

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Demolition continues on Sunday on the section of I-85 that collapsed in a fire Thursday evening in Atlanta. As construction crews clear debris, traffic is stopped along northbound Piedmont Road. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Metro Atlantans will awake Monday to a new reality: the usual nightmare commute may enter a new circle of Dante’s hell.

The closing of a key section of Interstate 85 that collapsed last week will force thousands to take alternate routes to get to work, including traveling on narrow city streets that weren't designed to be backup highways. Others will take the long way around on I-285, creating bumper-to-bumper jams on what is already a miserable daily trip for most.

And if you think state and county commuter buses might be a substitute, fuhgeddaboutit. They're also expecting longer commutes because of rerouting and new unfamiliar pick-up spots for passengers.

In short: it’s about to get ugly.

“Atlanta traffic generally does not adjust well to the slightest of disturbances, like rain, stranded vehicle on the shoulder, work crews, etc.,” said Greg Charleston, a Midtown worker from Alpharetta. “I’m afraid that this traffic situation is going to make it highly inefficient and highly unproductive for many workers to spend two to four hours in traffic everyday.”

The pain will be shared across the board. In addition to commuters, businesses will struggle to get shipments, diners may eat out less and some logistics companies that use Atlanta as a transportation hub may seek to alter their trucking routes for now, experts said.

“All that volume has to go somewhere,” said Eric Lamphier, senior director of product management at logistics firm Manhattan Associates. “There are undoubtedly going to be some rerouting of things.”

How badly traffic may snarl on Monday is is anyone’s guess, but even with many people taking off early Friday for spring break, traffic was chaos.

Eric Canfield, who lives near Piedmont Park in Midtown and normally drives to work, woke up about 45 minutes earlier than usual on Friday to catch a bus.

“I was curious how everything was going to be impacted because the fire was so big and it was close to me,” said Canfield, who works for a home construction company. “When I walked to the bus station, Piedmont was already backed all the way up, past the park, and this is at 7 o’clock in the morning.”

City and state leaders advise workers to plan their trips in advance, take I-285, telecommute or ride MARTA.

To keep motorists off I-85 in Midtown, key routes have been closed, including I-85 South at the Ga. 400 northbound ramp; Ga. 400 southbound at Sidney Marcus Boulevard; and access to I-85 South from Chamblee Tucker, Shallowford, Clairmont of North Druid Hills roads.

Some people took heed Friday. MARTA said ridership jumped Friday by 25 percent and Breeze Card sales grew 80 percent. To accommodate the increased ridership, MARTA replaced its typical 40-foot buses with the larger 60-foot buses on some routes, said spokesman Erik Burton. MARTA also increased the frequency of trains at Five Points to every five minutes and to every seven minutes on the Red Line to North Springs.

Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said traffic on I-85 from the Perimeter to Ga. 400 was down 70 percent Friday.

On the other hand, traffic on local routes such as Cheshire Bridge, Clairmont and Piedmont roads saw significant increases that day. Georgia Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mark McDonough described it as the sort of volume that city streets could not accommodate. Piedmont in particular remained a mess Saturday and Sunday.

“This is not set up to do that,” he said. “The lights are not set up to do that.”

‘It won’t look pretty getting there’

Some don’t expect Monday and the days to follow to be a big deal.

“The only impact to us is we have temporarily stopped trains at times to allow first responders to get in and do some work,” said Craig Camuso, regional vice president of state government affairs for railroad giant CSX. “But there has not been any longstanding interruption of our service and we don’t anticipate that.”

UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg said the company has experience navigating logistics crises, including the shutdown of the Pennsylvania Turnpike between Pennsylvania and New Jersey that made delivery challenging for as much as five months.

“Our engineering and planning teams look at our alternative options, you look at the time of day you’re travelling and we build new routing plans around that,” Rosenberg said.

But Tom Smith, a labor economist at Emory University, said small business operators won’t be so lucky. Restaurants that depend on freshness of their product for their livelihood or hotels that need clean linen every day could be stressed if delivery times are inconsistent. Others may suffer if customers, frustrated by congestion, start skipping going out to shop or rent a movie online because going to the multiplex becomes too much of a hassle.

“This will eventually sort itself out, but it won’t look pretty getting there,” Smith said.

Rebooting for telecommuting?

Telecommuting could offer some relief, experts said, and many companies encouraged employees to work from home on Friday. Most said they planned to take the weekend to evaluate whether an extended teleworking program would work.

Deborah Butler, a clinical associate professor of managerial services at Georgia State University, said it’s critical that companies allow workers some flexibility. Atlanta’s traffic woes are extraordinary, even when all its roads are in use. To cut off a main artery that carries tens of thousands to their jobs will invite workers to come in fatigued, frustrated and unfocused. That will have more of an impact on productivity than letting staff stay at home to work.

“The dumb organization will lumber along and keep doing what it normally does and expect everyone to come in as usual,” she said.

Some workers planned to do dry runs over the weekend to determine how to navigate their way to work and anticipate how long it might take to get there.

Realtor Ennis Antoine, who spends a lot of time on metro Atlanta streets and interstates, said getting a feel for what is open and what is not will help him in the coming days. He has a client Monday who wants to see a home near Peachtree Industrial Boulevard.

“Now I’m going to have to allow for extra time just to get from one area to the next,” he said. “How are you supposed to get there in a timely manner?”

Antoine lives in Smyrna, teaches in Alpharetta and has an office in Sandy Springs with Better Homes & Gardens Real Estate Metro Brokers. Getting to all those places during the coming weeks — or perhaps months — will be “horrible,” he said.

Sherrie Storey of Covington, who works at Lenox Square, said she is going to build an extra hour into her commute. The night of the I-85 collapse, she was stuck in traffic for more than three hours.

“That wore me out,” said Storey, whose inbound commute usually takes her west on I-20 to I-85 North and then Ga. 400. “Whenever I had to be at work at 2 p.m. I would leave home at 1 p.m. Now, I’ll have to leave at noon because I don’t know how they will redirect traffic.”

Staff writers Shelia Poole and David Wickert contributed to this article.

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