Gridlock Guy: Atlanta traffic before, during, after solar eclipse

The highly rare total solar eclipse grabbed the attention of many in the U.S. and particularly those in or near zones of that had totality. Northeast Georgia and much of South Carolina was one such area and throngs of people headed to the hills to see this phenomenon. Our WSB Traffic Team predicted that the delays for those shooting up north would be big and those predictions were spot on, especially for those that did the trip in the same day.

“It was like major sporting event traffic on steroids. It just kept going, and you knew it wasn’t getting any better,” Atlanta’s Morning News co-anchor Judd Hickinbotham said. He chose to leave right after AMN ended at 9 a.m., figuring he would arrive at a good viewing spot in plenty of time for the 1 p.m. eclipse. Totality was after 2:30.

Hickinbotham made Northeast Georgia in time, fortunately. “A round trip that usually takes me four-and-a half to five hours took me over seven hours,” he said, cringing at the thoughts of his 1:30 a.m. alarm. “Didn’t get home until 10:30. Even my dog riding in the back seat looked exhausted by the time we got home.”

Georgia DOT warned motorists of the impending delays, with stark reminders of the illegality of parking along the shoulders of interstates and major highways to watch the eclipse.

Another News 95.5 AM-750 WSB co-worker, Jared Yamamoto, had designs of watching the eclipse from his boat. Unlike Hickinbotham, Yamamoto had to stay until his producing duties from the daily, one-hour “Von Haessler Doctrine” ended before noon. When I found this out just after the show started at 11, I told him he would never make Lake Lanier on time. I-85/northbound and I-985/northbound started getting ugly in the 8 a.m. hour.

The traffic only got worse through the morning. But Yamamoto, sporting his usual confidence, didn’t waver.

“Traffic was definitely heavy heading northbound on I-85, but the backroads were not as congested as I thought!” Yamamoto dipped off of I-85 in southern Gwinnett and took Satellite Boulevard and Buford Highway all the way up to south end of the lake. His trek wasn’t near the distance of others. “The route typically takes 45 minutes from the station to the dock. For the Great American Eclipse, it took an hour and 5 minutes.”

One reason I-85/northbound was so bad was because of three different tractor trailer stalls that each blocked one of the two northbound lanes between Buford and Commerce, between 8:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. My parents got stuck in that backup and saw us fly over. Smilin’ Mark McKay and I saw each one from the WSB Skycopter, which we deployed for extra Triple Team Traffic coverage at noon.

One prediction I missed was how bad metro Atlanta traffic would be. I speculated that the natural spectacle would be so distracting, that people would wreck or drive recklessly left and right. As totality approached after 2:30, I found the roads in Northeast Atlanta nearly deserted, with cars coming by leisurely with their headlights on in the dusk-looking light.And we had zero major wrecks in the WSB 24-Hour Traffic Center during that time.

Applause, Atlanta!

WSB media consultant Beth Radtke made a weekend out of the whole event, traveling to Hiawassee early. But like most people, she had to be back at work Tuesday and saw a real crush of travelers Monday afternoon.

“The return was slightly different, quite crowded but was moving continuously,” Radtke recalled. “We took 985 to 85 and it was crowded and slow but kept moving. Took us about three hours to return from Hiawassee to the Candler Park area.”

Radtke’s route differed from some, as she was more to the west and could go the Blue Ridge route and eventually down I-575 and I-75. For those that went the Clayton, Black Rock Mountain State Park, Tallula Falls route, the only way north and south was U.S. 23 which becomes Hwy. 365 and then I-985.

U.S. 23 was absolutely gridlocked from North Carolina to Cornelia through the late afternoon and evening hours Monday. Thousands of vehicles made the descent in just one southbound lane. Once that traffic could disperse better on Hwy. 365, there were more alternates and channels for commuters. But even I-85 had its troubles at night.

GDOT, which had restricted construction from noon to 7 p.m. for Monday’s eclipse, allowed crews to block multiple lanes of I-85/southbound south of I-285 in DeKalb after 9 p.m., as David Wickert for AJC’s Commuting Blog noted.

For those already having struggled up north, hitting a construction buzz saw late in their rides was frustrating. But despite some problems, the ever-optimistic Hickinbotham drew a heartening observation.

“The funny part – before the eclipse, everyone drove very, very aggressively – cutting people off, riding bumpers, swerving across two lanes to exit. After the eclipse, I don’t know if everyone was just in a good mood from the show or just exhausted (I was both), but we all just moved like zombies down the road – followed the herd to get home.”