I-85 northbound reopens in Atlanta

Six weeks after I-85 in Atlanta collapsed in a ball of flames, the Georgia Department of Transportation reopened the northbound lanes of the highway Friday evening.

The lanes opened at about 7 p.m., and the first vehicles rolled across the newly constructed stretch of highway minutes later. The southbound lanes are expected to open by Sunday.

The opening comes a month before the original projected completion date of June 15 — but not soon enough for Atlanta motorists who have endured unusually bad commutes since the bridge collapsed March 30.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

A homeless man, Basil Eleby, has been charged with setting the blaze, which spread to construction material GDOT stored beneath the highway. On Friday, Eleby asked that the charges against him be dismissed.

Since the collapse, I-85 has been closed between I-75 and Ga. 400, forcing commuters onto other crowded interstates or local streets around the construction site.

Contractor C.W. Matthews has worked around the clock to rebuild 350 feet of elevated highway in each direction. The state offered an incentive of up to $3.1 million if the contractor finished early, and it appears it will collect the full amount if construction wraps up this weekend as planned.

As construction progressed, the projected opening was moved up first to May 26, then to this weekend. Good weather and luck helped accelerate the schedule. Workers lost only one full day to bad weather during the project, and the fire spared the bridge's foundation and its original 13 columns.

The construction has mesmerized the region — no more so than Friday evening, when thousands of people watched the reopening of the northbound lanes on social media. Word Thursday that workers were making the final preparations for the opening heightened the anticipation.

Still to be determined is the final cost to taxpayers for the project. GDOT said the construction itself will cost up to $16.6 million, including the contractor’s incentive payments. The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to pay 90 percent of the cost.

In addition, Georgia will ask the federal government to cover millions of dollars more in expenses related to the emergency response to the bridge collapse. That includes costs ranging from expanded mass transit service to traffic control. The federal government is expected to pay all of those costs.

Also still to be completed is a full accounting of exactly what caused the fire that led to the highway’s collapse. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident, and GDOT has asked State Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens and State Fire Marshal Dwayne Garriss to review GDOT’s procedures for storing materials, especially under bridges.

Staff writer Rhonda Cook contributed to this article.