OPINION: The long, frustrating wait on Cheshire (Without the) Bridge Road

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

For the past year, Cheshire Bridge Road has been misnamed because, well, there’s no bridge there.

Maybe for the time being we should just call it Cheshire Gap Road.

A fire under the bridge on August 4, 2021 spread to a four-inch gas line, causing it to burn for eight hours and BBQ the structure’s integrity. It was quickly determined the 1930s-era bridge was toast and needed to be torn down. The area this week sourly acknowledged the one-year anniversary.

In 1999, an Atlanta Planning Department study saw visions of possibility in the shabby 8,000-foot thoroughfare. In a thematic statement, the planners optimistically called it, “Cheshire Bridge... the neighborhood that connects.”

A generation later, the road is still largely shabby but is no longer connecting.

There was initial hope that Cheshire’s bridge could be quickly reopened: In 2017, a blaze under nearby I-85 caused a collapse and that was repaired in six weeks.

A once homeless man who wound up working at a law firm was arrested after the 85 fire but never prosecuted after reaching an agreement to go through a diversion program; he and his attorneys maintained his innocence. After the Cheshire Bridge fire, an Atlanta fireman told me there was a video of a man believed to be homeless running from the scene of the blaze. At least five fires under bridges in that area have been large enough to draw news coverage since 2018. The firefighter told me, “It seems like there’s one a week.”

However, a quick fix was not in the offing this time. Cheshire Bridge Road, with or without the bridge, is no I-85. It’s kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of Atlanta roads.

Josh Rowan, then-chief of the city’s Transportation Department, quickly poured water on expectations of a quick reopening. “It’s really a case of apples and oranges; while the work on I-85 was just a tremendously successful effort, there’s some key difference with our project,” he told FOX 5-TV a week after the fire. “This bridge was built in the 30s with federal funding. It’s been widened it appears three times since then and so we don’t have the ability essentially of just rebuilding the deck. We’re tearing the thing down to the ground and then we’ll have to start from scratch.”

Within days, the city announced it was “issuing an emergency bridge demolition RFP (Request for Proposals), with bids due by Aug. 13, 2021.″ Also, it was “preparing an emergency design/build RFP” to come in by the end of that same month.

On Aug. 23, contractor C.W. Matthews was named as the “best responsive bidder.” They were the heroes of the quick I-85 re-do. All good, right?

So why are we now a year removed from the fire and just seeing the concrete footings getting poured? The city hopes to have one lane open in each direction by Halloween.

Trick or Treat.

It seems the dictionary’s and City Hall’s version of “emergency” might not be found in the same book.

For starters, there were all sorts of utility lines that had to be relocated, although the city last August said that 70-80% of that work had been already completed. But relocating the rest apparently got tricky in some cases and contractors then had supply chain issues.

By November, Matthews’ wrecking crews were finally on the scene and the bridge was history by the end of the month.

“Emergency” requests for proposals to rebuild the bridge were supposedly being lined up last August, so one might assume the city would be ready to go with construction when the debris was removed. You’d be wrong thinking that.

On Dec. 1, the city announced “the procurement process is underway.” And in late January it said, “bids from prospective contractors are due . . . Feb. 1.”

On Feb. 16, the city said it was almost set to pick a contractor.

And then, nothing.

City updates stopped until May 5 when Matthews was announced as the contractor.

I asked the city about the delays in the so-called “emergency” process. Couldn’t the demolition and construction go to one bidder? Or couldn’t the rebuild procurement process happen as the demo occurred? And why the wait?

A spokesman said the city appreciates “the public’s patience as we rebuild a safe bridge infrastructure” and the “project remains on schedule and will reopen” with at least one traffic lane going each way by Oct. 31.

He said the bids were complicated, there were ADA issues and that contracting has been under a “microscope” because of previous cases of fraud.

I called Scott Duke, who owns Taverna Plaka, which is near the construction, and also manages the iconic Colonnade restaurant on the other side of what used to be the bridge.

He said businesses along that stretch just can’t get a break: The I-85 collapse hurt business, as did COVID. And now this.

“They said they’d be working around the clock,” Duke said. But a visit to the scene about 7 p.m. this week found a quiet site.

Duke said conspiracies abound on Cheshire Road that the city and developers are dragging out the process to run off longtime businesses for a re-do of the street. He doesn’t believe the those rumors.

Bureaucracy is always a better bet.