Portion Of I-85 In Atlanta Collapses, Region Braces For Impacts
A rush-hour fire Thursday evening led to the collapse of an elevated portion of a critical artery that provides access from Atlanta to its northern suburbs. As crews work to clean up the wreckage, the region is only beginning to grapple with its impacts.
The northbound lane of Interstate 85, just north of Midtown Atlanta near where it splits to Georgia 400 northbound, collapsed after a huge fire, causing officials to completely shut down both directions of the interstate to all traffic. Reports indicate no one was injured as a result of the collapse or the fire.
The cause of the fire was unknown as of press time, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and officials expect the highway to be closed for the foreseeable future. That stretch of 85 northbound sees an annual average daily traffic count of more than 222,000 vehicles, according to data from the Georgia Department of Transportation.
By 10 p.m. Thursday, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for Fulton County, delaying the opening of state government agencies until mid-morning on Friday.
“The state is mobilizing all available resources to ensure public safety and minimize disruption of traffic as we continue emergency response efforts," Deal said.
The fire not only collapsed the northbound lane of I-85, but damaged the southbound lane — another critical artery into Atlanta from the northern sections of town — "requiring the replacement of those sections," Georgia DOT commissioner Russell McMurry said Friday morning in a statement.
"The extent of the fire-related damage necessitates extensive reconstruction activities to ensure the safety of motorists," McMurry said. "At this time, we do not have an anticipated duration for the repairs as we have not been able to fully access the site due to hotspots, but we do know that it is expected to be a time-consuming event."
He added that the site underneath the elevated highway was used as state's right of way for storage of construction materials, including PVC piping.
"We are as eager to learn the cause of this fire as anyone, which is why we will continue to work closely and in full cooperation with fire investigators to determine exactly how the fire was started," he said.
While officials begin to investigate the cause, at least one official is tallying up the impact this will have on not just the city, but the whole of Metro Atlanta, in the near term.
“This is just a unique and unpredictable moment,” said Kirk Rich, a principal with Avison Young in Atlanta who also is running for the City Council in the 6th District, in which the collapse occurred. "But at the same time, it shows the fragility of the infrastructure."
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed seemed to echo those sentiments. “I think it's as serious a transportation crisis as we could have,” he said during a press conference Thursday night.
The collapse comes in the early days of President Donald Trump's administration, which has proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, expected to largely be administered through tax credits. The collapse figures to put the initiative squarely in the national spotlight.
Rich said the ramifications of just one section of major highway collapsing on the local and regional economy will stretch well beyond this week. After all, there is more than 70M SF of office space combined in Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead, employing thousands of workers, many of whom commute into the city and drive on I-85.
Beyond commuting, the logistics industry — Atlanta is the Southeast's distribution capital for critical goods and services — will be heavily affected by this, Rich said.
“It's even going to affect the Georgia Port. It's a Southern artery, it's not just a city artery. This is a regional issue,” he said. “It shows the fragility of what can happen when one major piece of infrastructure goes down. It absolutely domino effects the whole region.”
Making a dollar prediction on the economic impact of this — or even whether the incident could threaten Georgia's gross domestic product in coming quarters — is difficult at this point, said Roger Tutterow, director of the Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University. But that does not mean there is no impact.
“You're talking a significant impact to the businesses for the many weeks to come,” Tutterow said. The biggest impact will be felt by businesses near the incident site.
“If you're a professional business service firm, some of them will be able to tell their employees to telecommute,” he said. "But if you're a face-to-face business … this is going to be catastrophic for the near term."
For Jeremy Leifheit, the human resources director for Atlanta Cycling — a bicycle retail business with a location off Piedmont Road near the bridge collapse — it was just another business day on Friday with all his employees accounted for. Of course, it helped that some of his employees choose to bike to work.
But Leifheit commutes from East Cobb County, and his commute – via GA 400 – “was a little tricky,” he said. “I think it's one of those things I think will force the alternative transportation issue a little more.”
Tutterow said the logistics industry, a major component of Atlanta's economy, will most certainly be impacted as routes have to be shifted along streets that will see even more congestion.
“We are already a city known for having significant commutes,” he said. “You don't have to be on 85 to be affected by this, because it's going to dump so much more traffic on surface streets, on [Interstate] 75 and on [Interstate] 20.”
So far the ripple effects on metro businesses — other than increased congestion — appear minimal.
Atlanta's third-largest grocery chain by market share, Publix, is taking the highway closure in stride, spokesperson Brenda Reid said.
“We are evaluating truck routes and schedules to make sure we are able to continue delivering to our stores as well as receive products at our warehouse in Gwinnett,” Reid said in an email statement.
One of the biggest delivery companies in America has seen “very little service impact” overnight from the highway closure, said Kristen Petrella, a spokesperson for Atlanta-based United Parcel Service.
“Both UPS package and freight tractor trailers were routed around the I-285 Perimeter highway, as general commercial traffic follows this route as a bypass for interstate connections outside the city,” she stated via email. “We adjusted local delivery routes and dispatch times for the immediate area of the highway closure. UPS operations were normal for overnight sorts and morning preload at all our buildings in town, and there were no issues for UPS to retrieve intermodal trailers from nearby rail yards.”
Still, no timetable has been given as of press time for repairs and for I-85 to reopen. And that could put a strain on a slew of major conventions scheduled to be hosted in Atlanta in the coming months. Among the biggest conventions tracked by the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau include:
- The National Rifle Association 2017 Annual Convention, from April 28-30, which will see some 70,000 attendees estimated to spend nearly $60M.
- 2017 Rotary International Convention, from June 10-14 with an estimated 38,000 attendees predicted to spend $52M.
- The National Apartment Association 2017 Conference & Exposition, from June 21-24, with an estimated 10,000 attendees spending $11.4M.
- AmericasMart Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market, from July 11-18, estimated to host 88,000 attendees who could spend more than $124M.
- Dragon Con, the annual fandom and comic convention scheduled for Sept. 1-4, will attract 77,000 people who will spend nearly $71M.
- Two Chick-fil-A College Kickoff games: Alabama vs. Florida State on Sept. 2 and Georgia Tech vs. Tennessee on Sept. 4. The ACVB projects each game will attract 75,000 fans spending some $24M each day.
“We encourage visitors to plan ahead, allow extra time for travel and use MARTA to navigate the city,” AVCB president and CEO William Pate said. “We currently have a major convention in the city which is progressing on its normal schedule without disruption.”
Rajeev Dhawan, the director of economic forecasting at the J. Mack College of Business at Georgia State University, is also skeptical as to how wide an economic impact this event will have on Metro Atlanta. Sure, some businesses within the immediate area of the highway collapse could suffer, he said. But overall, if someone intends to spend money at a dinner, he or she will still likely go out. Maybe not at a restaurant nearby, but certainly elsewhere, Dhawan said.
“Yes, it's very bad for [a particular business] individually, but collectively, it doesn't mean that much,” he said. "What is the economic cost of the pain and economic inconvenience? Typically it shows up in productivity."
In other words, employees needing more time to get to work could be a problem — the longer they spend in the car, the fewer tasks they can accomplish at work.
“It's going to be a painful commute for people working downtown who live in Gwinnett and North Fulton,” Dhawan said.
The big unknown is how long it will be before repairs are complete and traffic can resume along I-85.
“I don't see at this point, kind of like, a significant measurable impact,” Dhawan said. “But I could be wrong. Things are still developing.”