First commute for repaired I-85 bridge

I-85 South reopened Saturday. (Credit: Georgia Department of Transportation)

I-85 South reopened Saturday. (Credit: Georgia Department of Transportation)

Monday morning marks the first rush hour in six weeks in which commuters will be able to use I-85 to get into town.

I-85 South reopened to traffic Saturday evening, one day after the northbound lanes were put back in use.

Thus, the interstate returned to full capacity about six weeks after a fire collapsed the bridge near Piedmont Road.

Since the March 30 incident, I-85 was closed in both directions from I-75 to Ga. 400.

Contractor C.W. Matthews had workers going around the clock to rebuild the bridge, with a $3.1 million incentive for getting it done before the initial June 15 completion date.

A homeless man, Basil Eleby, has been charged with setting the blaze. On Friday he asked the district attorney to drop the charges against him.

A DOT spokeswoman on Sunday said there have been no reported problems on the $16.6 million new spans and motorists have had a “smooth re-entry on both sides.”

Transportation officials and local business leaders, however, want Atlanta area drivers to remember the past six weeks. With the bridges out, MARTA ridership increased 25 percent, the Metro Atlanta Chamber said, and many businesses offered flexible working programs to keep driver’s off the roads as much as possible.

“It’s important we sustain the ‘mode-shift’ we saw,” Hala Moddelmog, president of the Metro Atlanta Chamber said. “Let’s continue to be creative and avoid adding congestion to our roadways during peak periods.”

Gino's NY Pizza Bar sits right at Piedmont and Cheshire Bridge roads and has been greatly impacted by the I-85 mess - for the better.

"Actually it helped us out," manager Amy Gerritz said. "We've had people stuck in traffic and get hungry. Our delivery has skyrocketed."

Gino's NY Pizza Bar manager Amy Gerritz said the I-85 collapse led to increased business. JENNIFER BRETT / JBRETT@AJC.COM

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It was a little difficult getting in to work Saturday as 85 was only half-opened but Gerritz is hoping for a long term bounce. "I'm hoping the people who just discovered us will come back," she said. "I love new customers."

Traffic may have driven Atlanta to drink lately but the Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits store on Piedmont near the site of the I-85 disaster has been in a dry spell.

"It has impacted our business, no doubt," manager Roger Bruce said. Things weren't quite back to normal on Saturday afternoon, as the interestate wasn't yet open in both directions.

"I suspect it'll look better on Monday," he said.

Still, he posed for a photo next to the champagne aisle, ready to celebrate the job's full completion.

And he raised a figurative toast to the loyal customers who have made the trying slog to his store lately - and to the C.W. Matthews crew members whose round the clock efforts should have Tower running at full tilt soon.

"Those guys have been great,” Bruce said.

In other news:

Secretary Chao is expected to tour the new I-85 bridge which received an initial influx of $10 million in federal funds from Washington to help cover the cost.