State expects to reopen I-85 in Atlanta before May 26

State officials expect to reopen I-85 in Atlanta before Memorial Day weekend — weeks ahead of their original schedule.

Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said Tuesday he’s confident the highway will reopen by May 26 or possibly sooner.

“It will open the minute it’s ready to open, no matter what time of day,” McMurry said following a press conference atop a stretch of the closed highway in Buckhead.

The new timeline — nearly three weeks ahead of the original June 15 projected opening — would be a tremendous relief for hundreds of thousands of commuters. Driving in parts of Atlanta has been unusually awful since March 30, when a fire destroyed a portion of I-85 near Piedmont Road in Buckhead and shuttered one of the main highways into the heart of the city.

A homeless man, Basil Eleby, has been charged with arson in connection with the fire, which was fueled by construction material GDOT had stored under the bridge.

Since then, contractor C.W. Matthews has been working around the clock to build 350 feet of I-85 in each direction. Already, the contractor has poured the concrete decks of four of the six bridge spans under construction. The others should be poured by the end of the week.

McMurry said good weather has helped. The original timetable assumed up to eight days would be lost to bad weather over the course of the project, he said. So far, weather has only disrupted one full day of construction.

Another factor: C.W. Matthews has a big incentive to finish quickly. It will earn an extra $1.5 million if it finishes the work by May 25 and an extra $2 million if it finishes by May 21. GDOT will pay C.W. Matthews an additional $200,000 for each day before May 21, up to a maximum incentive of $3.1 million.

Despite the accelerated construction schedule, the commissioner assured motorists the bridge will be safe. GDOT inspectors have been on site 24 hours, monitoring the contractor’s work.

“This is probably the best-inspected piece of bridgework we’ve had,” McMurry said.

After the bridge decks are poured, it may take several days for the concrete to set, according to GDOT Construction Director Marc Mastronardi. He said it may look as if not much is going on during that time.

After the concrete is set, workers will groove the pavement, pour concrete side barriers and stripe the new highway.

The project is expected to cost up to $16.6 million, with the federal government paying 90 percent of the cost.