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  • EXCLUSIVE: Olympic Legacy Plays Part in Dealing With Disaster


    (ATR) There certainly were no concrete plans in place, but Atlanta 1996 played a role in limiting the damage from the Interstate 85 bridge collapse.

    A view of the interstate in the immediate aftermath of the collapse (ATR)
    On March 30, a fire started under I-85 in the heart of Atlanta. The heat from the fire caused a bridge section of the interstate above to collapse. Any serious infrastructure damage becomes a logistical challenge, but this was compounded by its location near where Interstates 85 and 75 meet, a main artery through the city.

    As a result, traffic in Atlanta was expected to be impacted significantly. For a city already known for its traffic issues, that would have been disastrous. 

    City officials scrambled to come up with a plan, with many telling Around the Rings they rarely left the office for more than a few hours after the collapse. With work being done behind the scenes, officials at the scene mentioned the possibility of looking back to the 1996 Olympics for guidance in diverting traffic patterns.

    Research by ATR shows that although no physical plans remained in place that linked the Games to how officials mitigated the I-85 damage, an unexpected Olympic legacy proved vital in the city’s response to the collapse.

    GDOT Steps Up

    Chadrick Hendon was sitting down to eat a plate of leftover ribs, Andrew Heath was on a run, and Nicollette Canty could not believe what she was seeing at the Georgia Department of Transportation.

    The GDOT Transportation Management Center (ATR)
    These stories represent a fraction of the individuals caught in the moment when the I-85 bridge collapsed. All three work for the GDOT at its Transportation Management Center.

    The center itself was built in 1995 ahead of the Atlanta Olympics. Its role would be monitoring traffic during the Games as well as providing a plan to keep athletes and officials moving, while assisting the citizens of the city.

    After the Games, the center has grown to now include more than 1,000 traffic cameras connected by more than 300 miles of fiber optic cabling around metro Atlanta and major highways in the state. With this technology the center works to coordinate highway responses in the Atlanta area, responding to accidents in real time.

    That real time response allowed those working the night of the fire to immediately assess the situation before the bridge collapsed. For Canty, an assistant traffic specialist, that meant stopping all work to watch the fire burn.

    “I kept overhearing the operators that were on the phone saying ‘someone called in a vehicle fire,’ on I-85 and they pulled up the video and it was full of smoke and everything,” Canty recalled. “I was like wow. My first thought was ‘this didn’t look like a vehicle fire!’

    “The next thing we knew the bridge had collapsed.”

    Heath and Hendon on the floor of the center (ATR)
    Immediately, employees, including Heath, the state traffic engineer, and Hendon, a time operations manager, were called back into the office. Heath recalled staying in the office until two in the morning, before coming back three hours later to begin a new work day. More importantly, those initial crunch time meetings helped map out an initial traffic rerouting plan, that was expanded in the coming days. 

    By the end of the night, GDOT's preliminary plan worked to reroute traffic on a regional basis, while coordinating with the Atlanta Police Department to handle local detours.

    GDOT worked to get the message out through all appropriate channels, encouraging drivers to use Interstate 285 as a detour. Heath says that GDOT worked to immediately inform the surrounding states of the plans. The timing of the collapse was significant for this, given that many schools in the Southeast were set to be off the next week, and traffic through Atlanta was expected to be significant.

    After the site had been cleared of debris a more convenient and localized rerouting became feasible, allowing cars to bypass the collapsed bridge on a state highway running parallel to I-85. Still, as various problems and unexpected congestion began popping up around Atlanta, GDOT was prepared with additional reroutings.

    Despite much longer commutes for most drivers in the aftermath of the bridge collapse, it could have been much worse. 

    Inside the GDOT Transportation Management Center (ATR)
    Heath says what was done to monitor and ease traffic was not available during the time of the Atlanta Games, but has been “folded into this facility” as time went on.

    “Using the information that comes through...we were monitoring impacts on all the arterials and interstates in the metro region to see if there were any changes that we needed to do to help provide relief,” Heath said. “[For example], with 285 being the detour, we were able to make adjustments...on the complete other side of town to add more lanes and ease that traffic flow.”

    Federal Aid Helps Speed Up Repairs

    Within 12 hours of the bridge collapse, the United States federal government provided $10 million in emergency relief funds. These funds were used to assist GDOT as well as speed up the beginning of construction for the collapsed bridge.

    On May 15, less than two months after the disaster, the bridge was open to morning commuters. On May 18 Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao attended a ribbon cutting ceremony under the bridge to show the federal government's cooperation in the reconstruction.

    United States Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao opens the I-85 bridge (ATR)
    As a result of finishing the construction ahead of schedule, C.W. Matthews Contracting received over $3 million in bonuses. Chao thanked the contractors for working 24 hour shifts and finishing the works on time and on budget.

    “You have a very good team here...they were all prepared within 12 hours and they had a detour plan so everything was well arranged and that gave us comfort that we could go ahead and partner [with Georgia]," Chao told reporters under the bridge.

    As luck would have it, Chao’s office could hold the keys to a project as vital in Los Angeles’ efforts to bring the Summer Olympics back to the United States for the first time since Atlanta 1996. LA mayor Eric Garcetti recently met with Chao requesting money in accelerate the city’s proposed purple line subway. Securing the funding would allow the subway to be complete for the 2024 Olympics.

    Chao, through her spokesperson, declined to comment on the situation in LA at the Atlanta event. Subsequent followups have not been returned.

    Written by Aaron Bauer

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