The I-85 collapse has affected nearly every part of life in Buckhead, frustrating businesses that are seeing fewer customers, residents of neighborhoods used as alternative routes, and commuters stuck in traffic much longer than usual.
The northbound overpass collapsed March 30, severing one of Atlanta’s main arteries, after a fire alleged to be arson burned plastic tubing state officials stored there. Many people were stuck on the overpass for hours and many more had to come of up with an alternative route for the next day. Georgia Department of Transportation officials scrambled to put together plans to rebuild the overpass, announcing a few days later that they expect to complete the repairs by June 15.
“It is a very aggressive, but attainable date,” Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said at a press conference announcing the schedule.
Until then, however, residents in Atlanta and the metro area will have to learn to adapt. Some think this could lead to positive long-term changes for the city. A wider acceptance of MARTA could be one positive change for the city, said Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition and former Atlanta mayor.
“If people would try it, they would like it,” Massell said, repeating a mantra he has believed since the 1970s.
Emily Haar, the director of Perimeter Connects, an alternative commuting program of the Perimeter Center Community Improvement Districts, lives in Buckhead, about a mile from the highway collapse, and has altered her travel schedule to use MARTA. She said she is glad she chose to live near a station.
“Going back to MARTA was like a homecoming, just because it’s so easy to use,” Haar said.
During a recent walk home from the Lindbergh Center Station, she said she noticed not one car she walked by arrived before she did.
“There was a lot of honking and a lot of opportunities for road rage,” Haar said, adding that her MARTA rides are normally much different from the frustrating experiences drivers seem to be having. “You’re not the enemy of the person next to you. You’re all in this together,” she said.
MARTA, which has been experiencing higher ridership since the collapse of I-85, announced 1,200 new parking spaces have been added to deal with parking lots filling up quickly at many stations. Additional parking has been added to the Chamblee, King Memorial, Brookhaven/Oglethorpe, Kensington and East Point stations.
MARTA CEO Keith Parker said after a luncheon April 12 that plans are in the works to borrow overflow parking near North Springs and Sandy Springs stations and will be announced soon.
The mass transit service also introduced a website to monitor parking availability in real time. It can be accessed at itsmarta.com/parking.
The collapse is also affecting Buckhead businesses, especially along Piedmont Road near where the fire began.
The owner of GT Auto Repair, Menge Gizachew, said although the road has reopened after being closed for a few days, business is still much slower than usual. Most of his customers come from near the Hartsfield-Jackson airport, and Gizachew said they are having difficulty getting to him. Since it is an auto repair business, people don’t have the option of walking to the business or using mass transit.
The Goodwill Piedmont Road branch had to close temporarily and transfer employees to another facility while Piedmont Road was closed. Business has picked back up since it reopened, a spokesperson said.
Massell said he believes the collapse will have a negative effect on Buckhead’s business, a community that does nearly $3 billion a year in sales, but he hopes people will come back to the businesses when the situation has calmed.
“This will slow the normal buying habits,” he said. “But we hope it won’t lose commerce, just delay purchases.”
The collapse is forcing people to take alternative routes, sometimes through neighborhoods, causing the city to put up signs prohibiting all but local traffic to enter some neighborhoods. The city says it is committed to providing easy access for first responders and to hospitals, and part of that includes prohibiting any non-local traffic from entering some local streets, according to a press release.
Some Buckhead neighborhoods are also concerned about safety and intense traffic. Some have considered hiring off-duty police officers to help control traffic flows, which Nancy Bliwise of Pine Hills brought up at the April 4 NPU-B meeting. However, there are no concrete plans to hire the officers.
Atlanta Police Capt. Michael Butler addressed these concerns at the NPU-B meeting and said that police are going to be stricter with people speeding through neighborhoods.
“You can’t just fly down through because you’re late for work,” he said.
Alex McGee, a board member for the Brookwood Hills Neighborhood Association, said he experienced much more traffic than normal on Peachtree Road and around Buckhead, but doesn’t expect a large increase within his neighborhood. Brookwood Hills only connects to Peachtree Road, and McGee said residents will benefit from not having direct access to other major roads.
He expects the Collier Hills neighborhood and Deering Road area to experience much more traffic due to their access to Northside Drive and Peachtree Road. However, McGee, like others, expects much to change throughout the process as people continue to figure out what route to take.
GDOT Commissioner McMurry has said storing materials under overpasses is common nationwide and that this will be “a learning opportunity for the nation.”
McMurry has also triggered formal reviews of GDOT policies and practices for storing construction materials, especially for materials stored near bridges and transportation infrastructure.
Three people were arrested in connection with the fire. One of them, Basil Eleby, is accused of directly setting the fire that spread to the conduit stored under the bridge and eventually led to its collapse. His attorneys did not respond to questions.