It was about 6:30 p.m. on a balmy Thursday night on March 30, 2017 — a day that will live in infamy for many Atlantans for years to come. I was on patrol in my city just north of Atlanta, handling 911 calls, when I heard one officer on his way home come over our secondary radio frequency (known as TAC).
“I can see a very large billow of black smoke coming from I-85,” he said.
Thoughts of an overturned tractor trailer hauling gasoline entered my mind, but no one could have imagined the fire would cause as much destruction as we’d soon witness.
I turned on the radio to hear breaking news of a massive fire on the Interstate-85 overpass at Piedmont Avenue. At that point, our radio traffic became deluged by constant chatter from the surrounding state and local agencies advising of vehicles traveling the wrong way in both directions of the heavily traveled interstate highway to get away from the smoke. By 7:00 pm, reports came in of a stretch of overpass, approximately 40 yards long, that was completely collapsed into rubble.
Due to the times we live in, I then found myself asking, “Was this a terrorist attack?”
It sure would be the perfect target. You could essentially cripple a large American city and economic powerhouse with one strategically set fire or explosion.
It turned out that the blaze — which will prove life-altering for millions of people for the indefinite future — was caused by three crack addicts who had just gotten high and decided to set a fire under the bridge. That nonsense is its own story entirely, but this much is true. Basil Eleby, the lead arsonist, just surpassed Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn as the most hated man in the state of Georgia. After all, Quinn’s play-calling only led to the collapse of the biggest lead in Super Bowl history and figuratively broke Atlanta’s heart, but Eleby’s antics collapsed 40 yards of vital infrastructure and literally severed Atlanta’s femoral artery.
Here are a few fun facts on Eleby. The 39-year-old has an extensive criminal history spanning two decades and 19 arrests. His most recent arrest in 2014 was for the sale and trafficking of cocaine. The fact that he was even allowed to be out on the street is mind-boggling to anyone oblivious of the notoriously lax crime-fighting policies of the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office. For those of us with experience in working with them, it’s par for the course.
It’s not the sexiest story in the world, but the ramifications of the disaster could prove economically crippling for the state of Georgia and damaging to the greater southeast region’s trucking and trade industries. Even worse, the I-85 closing could catapult Georgia’s already dismal position at No. 7 on the auto fatalities rankings upwards into the stratosphere. The harsh reality I am about to explain is that there will no doubt be a large influx of traffic-related deaths to indirectly result from the closing of I-85, if past trends continue.
To give some context, I’ll need to geek out with some numbers. Metro Atlanta traffic ranks No. 8 in the world and No. 4 nationally for average commuter hours spent sitting in traffic, at 70.8 per year, according to the INRIX 2016 Global Traffic Scorecard.
These numbers reflect Atlanta’s traffic rating with an open and properly functioning I-85 interstate, traveled by 243,000 vehicles per day. Due to the fact that one of its most crucial stretches has been diminished to a pile of ruins, I-85 will be completely out of commission for up to eight months. This unfortunate reality is bad enough to cause some real concern, but it gets even worse when considering the alternative routes of travel left for the metro Atlanta area.
Due to its location along I-85, Atlanta has been considered “The Big Apple of the Southeast” for years. Everything related to trucking and ground transportation, from Florida up the eastern seaboard to the northeast, comes and goes through the I-85 corridor. For this reason, metro Atlanta’s “Spaghetti Junction” has earned the unfortunate distinction as “the nation’s worst truck bottleneck” according to a study done by the American Transportation Research Institute. The tangled knot of highway that is “Spaghetti Junction” is about eight miles northeast of the now collapsed portion of I-85, in the heart of Atlanta.
Miraculously, there were no fatalities caused by the inferno and several tons of collapsing concrete.
So what is the suggested route to take, now that I-85 is no longer an option? Well, you can take I-75 to I-285, but I should tell you that you’ll actually be traveling through the ATRI’s No. 9 spot on its list of the country’s worst truck bottlenecks to get there. You could of course go well out of your way and take I-20 to I-285, but you’d only being doing marginally better by traveling ATRI’s No. 14-worst truck bottleneck in the country.
Now here’s the kicker. In addition to several of I-285’s segments’ ranking near the top of the national list of traffic bottlenecks, I-285 is also the nation’s deadliest interstate highway. According to research done by the National Highway Traffic Administration, I-285 in Georgia had more fatal traffic accidents per mile than any other interstate in the country. Do you see the dire situation here? The only detour possible for a good portion of 243,000 vehicles that would normally travel I-85 daily is the deadliest interstate highway in the entire country.
Amid the grim prospects that lie ahead, there may be hope. Atlanta made headlines back in 2014 when “snowpocalypse” stranded thousands of vehicles on metro Atlanta’s notoriously shoddy interstates. I was personally stranded when a mere two inches of snow and ice shut down every lane on 400 North as I made my way home from work. Seven hours later, I was trekking through the ice in my police uniform up the highway like everybody else. Dealing with Atlanta’s infrastructure shut down for a few days was rough then, but the city survived and recovered. Thursday’s catastrophe will be a much longer-term problem and an astronomically more expensive fix — but the federal government has already pledged $10 million in emergency repair funds.
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Miraculously, there were no fatalities caused by the inferno and several tons of collapsing concrete that occurred on Thursday. The City of Atlanta and Dekalb County Fire Departments, as well as Georgia State Patrol, can be credited for a job well done in getting thousands of motorists clear of the area before the collapse. We can all feel thankful for that.
All silver lining aside, an ugly truth remains for the state of Georgia and its capital city. Atlanta’s world-class traffic issues just went from bad to worse. My daily commute cuts right through the now-absent stretch of I-85, and I don’t think my patrol car could make the jump “Dukes of Hazzard”-style. While the true damage assessment on everyone’s lives will be taking place this week during rush hour, I’m expecting my 40-minute commute in each direction to almost double.
It will be interesting to see how the world’s No. 3 movie-production industry, the world’s busiest airport, a prominent national trucking and trade route, and five million-plus metro Atlantans will adapt to a city that may take the top spot on the 2017 list of the world’s worst congested.
T.B. Lefever is a police officer in the Atlanta, Georgia, area and an OpsLens contributor. Throughout his career, he has served as a SWAT hostage negotiator, a member of the Crime Suppression Unit, a school resource officer, and a uniformed patrol officer. He has a BA in criminal justice and sociology from Rutgers University in New Jersey. This article is from OpsLens and is used by permission.