Upon seeing the I-85 bridge collapse, I immediately thought, “This could be a real tragedy for our city’s long-term economic health.” While traffic here is notoriously terrible, it went from bad to apocalyptic with the I-85 bridge collapse. Even before a fire took down a key piece of I-85, Atlanta was in the top five traffic problem cities based on commute times. Add to that a closed major thoroughfare, and suddenly it’s almost as horrific as an inch of snow covering all our roadways.
But six weeks and $16 million after the I-85 debacle, that main artery is once again carrying vehicles through the city, and beyond. The reopening came one full month ahead of schedule — a true testament to the ability of our city to prioritize and fulfill the needs of its people.
Just imagine how this could have gone if our local government hadn’t been able to rally the troops. History is littered with missed deadlines and overbudget infrastructure projects. Take for example, the Denver International Airport. The project took two years longer than expected and ended up $2 billion over budget. While this is a much larger scale project than repairing a bridge, it is a reminder of how municipal projects can end up frighteningly more costly than anticipated.
While the early reopening of I-85 came as an enormous relief to hundreds of thousands of Atlanta commuters, there was still some grousing about the $3.1 million bonus paid by the state to the contractorwho performed this minor miracle. Let’s be clear, such complaints are shortsighted and foolish. If the bridge issues lingered for a year or more, we could have seen irreparable damage to our city’s reputation, leading to a disastrous economic impact.
Minneapolis had a similar issue to us when one of its major bridges collapsed in 2007. From this, we can see the kind of economic impact a closed major thoroughfare can cause. According to their Department of Employment and Economic Development and MDOT, they had 140,000 vehicles including heavy commercial trucks using that bridge on a daily basis (almost half of what I-85 sees), but rather than taking six weeks to fix the bridge, they took about a year and a half to fix it. It’s estimated that long period of repair time created an economic loss of at least $60 million. Another piece of the analysis found that prior to improving the initial detour routes for the bridge, the economic loss tallied $400,000 per day.
Taking this same line of thinking, I think it’s fair to estimate the I-85 collapse cost our local economy at least $500,000 per day in everything from lost productivity and wages to wasted fuel to the toll on small businesses located near the disaster. Potentially more costly was the attention the incident brought to Atlanta’s brutal traffic. Imagine a corporate relocation team coming to the city over the past six weeks. Let’s say it’s a company that plans to bring in 600-plus jobs and significant tax dollars to the community. Would they decide to move headquarters to a city with a crippled infrastructure? No way. Now we’re starting to talk about billions of dollars on the table.
On top of creating an economic drag, the I-85 closure took a toll on our city’s collective lifestyle. I can personally attest to skipping more than a few activities while the bridge was closed rather than fighting traffic. I’m sure the Moss family weren’t the only ones who decided against a dinner out, a trip to the mall, or going to see a sporting event due to the difficulty in getting there. Multiply my family’s reduced activity and spending by the millions of people impacted by the closure and you begin to see the impact. It’s not a small number.
So, yes, getting I-85 reopened early was worth paying an incentive to accomplish. In fact, looking at the numbers, a $3.1 million incentive seems like a pretty good deal.
Traffic is now back to our base level of bad. In fact, it feels slightly better than it was before, perhaps due to changed commuter habits like using MARTA, ridesharing or telecommuting. But our normal bad traffic is light years better than the apocalyptic traffic that we recently faced that could have brought the growth of Atlanta to its knees. Thankfully, we have avoided this economic disaster … for now.
Wes Moss has been the host of “Money Matters” on News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB in Atlanta for more than seven years now, and he does a live show from 9-11 a.m. Sundays. He is the chief investment strategist for Atlanta-based Capital Investment Advisors. For more information, go to wesmoss.com.