One of the most important arteries in the state’s transportation system has been partially shut down after a truck smashed into an interstate overpass Thursday morning with enough force to shift the bridge several feet.
FRIDAY UPDATE: Bridge has been removed and all lanes were reopened shortly atfter 8 p.m. Friday
I-16, where the crash took place, is expected to be blocked for several days, state officials said. The highway, which connects Macon to Savannah, is the main thoroughfare between metro Atlanta and Georgia’s coast, heavily trafficked by both tourists headed to the beach and trucks moving goods to and from the Port of Savannah.
About 21,000 vehicles travel on I-16 each day, Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said in a press briefing Thursday alongside Gov. Brian Kemp.
Those thousands of cars and trucks will be forced off the interstate as crews work to demolish the destabilized bridge, McMurry said. Specialized crews from GDOT will prioritize reopening I-16 West and expect to have one lane open by Sunday morning. One eastbound lane will be reopened by Monday, and normal traffic is expected to be restored later in the week.
About seven miles of I-16 will be shut down during the work, McMurry said. The damaged bridge is an overpass for the lightly trafficked Ga. 86, which sees only about 300 vehicles per day. The shutdown is about halfway between Macon and Savannah, about 150 miles southeast of downtown Atlanta and just north of Soperton.
According to GDOT, the bridge was dislodged from its concrete base after it was hit by a big rig towing a dump trailer raised in its dumping position. In photos provided by the agency, the trailer appears to be filled with large tires.
It was not clear if the trailer malfunctioned or if the driver knew it was in a nearly vertical position when the vehicle tried to pass under the bridge. Officials did not say whether the crash resulted in charges for the driver or other penalties.
As a result of the impact, the center of the bridge was pushed back nearly 6 feet, McMurry said. The section of the bridge over the westbound lanes is hanging lower and presents the greatest potential for danger, he said.
“Our goal is to, obviously, have this bridge removed so I-16 traffic can be restored as quickly as possible,” McMurry said.
Demolition of the bridge was scheduled to begin Thursday night, with a focus on restoring westbound traffic first in order to aid freight moving out of Savannah, McMurry said. The Port of Savannah is the second-busiest port on the East Coast, and everything from furniture to electronics to food flows in and out of the harbor.
Though the Georgia Ports Authority has made significant investments to expand rail capacity between its inland ports and main seaport, much of the cargo that travels into and out of Savannah is shipped by truck.
A recent study by the University of Georgia found maritime trade accounts for $44 billion of the state’s gross domestic product and the ports directly or indirectly touch more than 439,000 jobs.
As the crews began their work, a detour was put in place that will take motorists either through Soperton (eastbound) or Adrian (westbound). The closures will be between exits 71 and 78, according to the Georgia Department of Public Safety. The westbound detour consists of about 24 miles, considerably longer than the eastbound route (10 miles).
By Thursday evening, traffic was already backed up on both detour routes, McMurry said.
For those headed to the Georgia beaches who want to avoid the interstate detour entirely, they can exit I-16 onto U.S. 441 just south of Dublin and then take U.S. 341 south in McRae. That route ends up in Brunswick, which is close to Jekyll Island, St. Simons Island and other summer destinations.
Demolition work on the bridge is contingent on the weather, McMurry noted. Video from the scene showed rain falling Thursday afternoon, and more rain is predicted in the area Friday.
— Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.