May 18, 2017 Atlanta - Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel (left) greets U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao after I-85 Bridges Ceremonial Ribbon Cutting on Piedmont Road at the I-85 overpass on Thursday, May 18, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

U.S. transportation chief praises Georgia’s response to I-85 collapse

The federal government’s top transportation official came to Atlanta Thursday to survey the new I-85 bridge she has agreed to pay for.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao joined Gov. Nathan Deal and other Georgia officials at the new bridge for a belated celebration of its opening last weekend — just six weeks after the bridge collapsed.

IN-DEPTH: I-85 repaired but Atlanta traffic still going to get worse

PHOTOS: Atlanta I-85 bridge collapse progress

“Atlanta can shine today,” Chao said during the ceremony beneath the new bridge at Piedmont Road. “You have shown us a community that works.”

The bridge caught fire and collapsed March 30. A homeless man, Basil Eleby, has been charged with setting the fire, which spread to construction materials that the Georgia Department of Transportation stored under the highway.

The latest update on the I-85 bridge repair from the Georgia Department of Transportation. The bridge, which collapsed during a fire, is scheduled to reopen May 15, 2017.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the safety of storing materials under highways.

Contractor C.W. Matthews worked around the clock to complete the reconstruction of the bridge. GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry announced Thursday the company will received the full $3.1 million in incentives it was offered to finish early.

Chao’s Transportation Department will pay 90 percent of the $16.6 million construction cost of the new bridge, including the incentives. Georgia also will ask the federal government to pay millions of dollars in other costs related to the bridge collapse, including additional mass transit service and traffic control.

Chao, Deal and others praised the contractor, GDOT and other agencies that contributed to the quick completion of the project. Chao called the effort “a marvel of dedication.”

Officials also praised Atlanta firefighters and police officers and state troopers for their quick work the night of the fire, which prevented deaths and injuries.

Deal thanked Chao for her quick response following the fire. Within hours her department had provided $10 million in emergency funds to get the I-85 reconstruction started.

“In less than 24 hours — in fact, the next morning — she was calling me, saying, `we want to help,’” Deal said.

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