This story has been updated.
It’s been more than a month since a massive fire caused a section of I-85 to collapse, throwing metro Atlanta traffic into gridlock and leaving many wondering who exactly was to blame.
- The fire and collapse happened March 30, 2017
- I-85 northbound lanes reopened May 12, 2017
- I-85 southbound lanes reopened May 13, 2017
According to Gov. Nathan Deal, the area of I-85 will reopen in time for Monday’s morning rush hour commute and possibly earlier — a full month ahead of the original June 15 deadline.
Here’s what we know so far:
Who’s at fault?
Basil Eleby, 39, was charged with starting the fire. On Tuesday, April 18, Eleby pleaded not guilty to arson and criminal trespass charges and is expected to be released on a $10,000 signature bond.
According to AJC’s Rhonda Cook, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville also ordered Eleby to enter into a treatment facility and banned him from going near the I-85 bridge unless he is with his attorneys.
Eleby’s attorneys say the Georgia Department of Transportation is also to blame for the fire for storing construction material under the bridge for years.
But, according to Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell R. McMurry, storing the material there isn’t uncommon at all.
“It does not ignite,” he said. “It takes something to cause something like that to burn. It is a high-density plastic that is not combustible.”
When The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s reporters investigated what exactly happened under the bridge and why the materials were stored there, the newspaper found security at the site was lacking and determined that officials don’t really know what’s stored under other bridges around the state.
Jay Florence, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Insurance (which also includes the fire marshal’s office), identified two other suspects who were charged with criminal tresspass: Sophia Bruner and Barry Thomas.
“We believe they were together when the fire was set and Eleby is the one who set the fire,” Florence said.
What are Eleby’s lawyers saying?
According to Eleby’s attorney, Liz Markowitz, he is being scapegoated.
“I have dedicated my entire career to protecting indigent clients who are human beings and not causes,” Markowitz said.
Eleby, who is accused of setting a chair on fire that then ignited construction material stored under a stretch of interstate by the Georgia Department of Transportation, had been arrested at least 19 times before the fire, mostly on drug-related offenses, the AJC previously reported.
In a statement, a coalition of civil rights and advocates for the homeless focused on protecting Eleby said it “is concerned that Mr. Eleby is being used as a ‘scapegoat’ by government officials to avoid public scrutiny and accountability.”
The coalition said it plans to ensure that government officials are held accountable.
What exactly was underneath the bridge?
According to police, the flames ignited in a state-owned storage area under I-85 northbound just south of Ga. 400.
Stored there were high-density polyethylene pipes, which are commonly used in the transportation industry for cabling and fiber optic wire networks.
The material had apparently been stored in the area for as long as 11 years, according to Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell R. McMurry.
When will the bridge be repaired?
Inspectors determined 350 feet of lanes in each direction of the collapsed bridge must be replaced, the AJC previously reported.
The demolition of the old structure has been replaced and officials originally announced the bridge would reopen June 15, and later, state officials said they expect it to reopen before May 26.
But according to Gov. Nathan Deal, the area of I-85 will reopen Monday, May 15 in time for the morning rush hour commute and possibly earlier — a full month ahead of the original June 15 deadline.
McMurry announced the contractor behind the repairs, C.W. Matthews, would earn an extra $1.5 million for completing the project by May 25.
According to AJC’s David Wickert, the contractor could earn $2 million for completing it by May 21 and $200,000 for each day before that, up to a total of $3.1 million.
Who is paying for the repairs?
The federal government will provide $10 million in emergency relief funds toward cleanup and repair of the highway. According to Gov. Nathan Deal’s chief of staff Chris Riley, President Donald Trump made a call to the governor to offer his “full support” of the plan.
Georgia transportation officials told state lawmakers they will ask the federal government to pay millions of dollars more for an expansion of MARTA service plus additional expenses tied to the bridge collapse, AJC’s David Wickert reported.
The total expenses could total as much as $16.6 million.
What is the impact of this bridge disaster on Atlanta’s economy?
The AJC previously reported that though the mess will cost a lot of money, time and affect the nearby businesses and change commuter patterns, job growth in construction have soared.
Currently, there are approximately 118,500 construction jobs in Atlanta, up from 6.9 percent from last year, and nearly twice the pace of overall hiring.
But still, according to AJC’s Michael Kanell, the cost and impact could be significant in some places and for some companies.
What are the best alternate routes Atlanta commuters should use?
With all the damage and reconstruction work, drivers are having a tough time with their newly adjusted commutes. Without access to the closed Buford-Spring Connector from Sidney Marcus Boulevard, for example, travel times are at an all-time high.
Transportation authorities have offered Atlanta drivers and commuters an updated list of road closures, detours and alternative routes, the AJC previously reported. Here are some options:
- I-85 northbound traffic is being diverted to Buford Spring connector for local travel only;
- I-75/I-85 northbound traffic is being diverted to I-75NB. 17th Street is last available northbound exit prior to Brookwood split; (Read: Northbound? How to bypass the bridge collapse and return to I-85)
- I-75SB ramp to I-85NB ramp is closed;
- SR 400SB to I-85SB is closed. Traffic diverted to I-85NB. Sidney Marcus Blvd is last available exit;
- I-85 SB is closed. Traffic diverted to SR 400NB. Lenox/Cheshire Bridge is last available exit;
- Buford Spring connector southbound is open from Piedmont Road;
- Buford Spring connector northbound is now open from Spring/West Peachtree and Peachtree Street.
You can also use this live interactive map with I-85 road closures, detours and other alternate routes to help you get around:
And don’t forget about MARTA, though you may have to get to your nearest station a little early to find a parking space.
To help, use MARTA’s real-time parking tracker that shows when parking lots are full.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.