Costs of I-85 bridge fire to ripple across region

Taxpayers will be on the hook for a pair of 350-foot spans of elevated freeway. Commuters, doomed to spend hours taking new ways home, will pay in fuel and time. Businesses will have to cope with lost sales and delayed deliveries.

The costs of Thursday’s collapse of a section of I-85 between Midtown and Buckhead will ripple across metro Atlanta’s economy. And you’ll feel it whether or not you regularly travel that stretch.

SweetWater Brewing Company on Friday was considering whether to shift production to nights and weekends so that trucks will come and go at non-peak hours, offsetting the lack of easy interstate access. The beer maker is based right next to the shut-down part of I-85.

“We are going to do what we have to do to make sure that production and shipping doesn’t miss a beat,” said spokeswoman Tucker Berta Sarkisian, adding the brewery will stay open as usual.

Other businesses across the region face similar recalculations.

The lost segment of I-85 connects downtown and Midtown, two of the city’s most vibrant commercial centers, to Buckhead and the region’s wealthy northern suburbs. Those suburbs have relatively anemic transit alternatives, spreading the pain from increased traffic around the region.

“You can’t anticipate every vulnerability that we have,” Kennesaw State University economist Roger Tutterow said. “(But) it would be harder to imagine what could impair the transportation in Atlanta (more) than to have a major interstate go down.”

Some people can telecommute — several large companies encouraged it on Friday and said they’d keep the option open — but many workers won’t be able to avoid changing their commute routes or hours, or both.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber, itself coping on Friday with a staff pared down by travel problems, was still trying to get a handle on the crisis and the ways it would affect its member companies, said spokeswoman Deisha Barnett.

The chamber said it was “premature” to speculate on the cost of lost economic activity.

Another cost will be reputational, Tutterow said. The region already has a reputation for abysmal traffic.

Costs of delivery

Metro Atlanta’s highways make it a hub for warehousing and distribution. Shipping and delivery firms will find new routes around I-85, but more miles and time will add to the cost.

“The companies will have to raise their rates. They’ll be sitting in traffic longer,” said Kelly Frey, vice president of product marketing for tech firm Telogis, a Verizon company that provides way-finding technology for commercial truckers.

The unit cost per mile for shipping through the Atlanta corridor could go up in some cases by 10 percent to 20 percent, Frey said. Some of that cost will be eaten by the shippers, some of it will be passed along.

Consumers “won’t feel it immediately at the grocery store,” Frey said. “But somehow that (cost of) congestion will need to be absorbed.”

ASW Distillery opened the company’s new facility near Sweetwater in Armour Yards about nine months ago. Like his beer-making neighbors, co-founder Jim Chasteen said the distillery hosts tastings and tours and needs regular shipments of grain and other ingredients to craft their small batch whiskey, rye, brandy and bourbon.

ASW plans no changes in its tour and tasting schedule, and Chasteen said despite the bridge incident, he wanted the word out that getting to ASW on surface streets wasn’t that bad.

“We’ve got grain here in house that can keep us going for several weeks,” Chasteen said. “We have to have access to commercial goods, but the main thing is (customers).”

The taxpayer impact

Metro Atlanta isn’t the first city to suffer a punctured infrastructure. If similar events elsewhere are a guide, the impact on taxpayers alone will surely run well into millions or tens of millions.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced plans to send $10 million in emergency relief dollars to the state of Georgia to assist with cleanup and repair. The funding is aimed at restoring short-term access to the site, as well as starting the most pressing repairs.

Indirect costs could equal or surpass the direct repair expenses.

They start with overtime to cops and firefighters who worked the Thursday disaster or its aftermath. Spokespeople for the city of Atlanta, DeKalb County, Georgia State Patrol and other agencies couldn’t provide hard figures on the cost of the response, or estimate how much might be spent in the weeks and months ahead on related manpower.

MARTA may get a boost in ridership, but its costs will rise too.

“Any time we run train service more frequently, that requires more bodies, more time and more resources,” said Erik Burton, spokesman for the agency.

Predicting how long repairs will take  the state DOT warned it will be months “at least” — is an iffy business, said Brian Turmail, spokesman for Associated General Contractors.

However, it is common for “emergency” contracts to include financial incentives for finishing faster than the official deadline, he said.

Cost can also be tough to suss out. “There is just no way to get exact numbers,” Turmail said.

Many factors in cost

Lisa Washington, executive director of the Design-Build Institute of America, said the age of the bridge, the length of the fallen portion and other factors will determine the eventual cost.

In 2004, it cost $5.5 million to replace a 413-foot portion of interstate bridge in Birmingham after a truck crashed into it. Alabama covered 20 percent of the cost of repairs, while the federal government paid for 80 percent.

The cost to replace the Alabama bridge was on the low end of the spectrum. In Washington, replacing the Skagit River Bridge in 2014 cost $19.8 million, with the federal government paying for 94 percent, including the cost of putting up a temporary bridge.

In Minnesota, replacing 1,223 feet of the I-35W bridge after its collapse cost $259 million.

Kevin Gutknecht, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said the state had estimated the cost of having the bridge down was about $400,000 a day – in time lost to congestion, increased fuel consumption and longer commutes.

A highway collapse is a “huge, huge economic issue,” said Travis Phelps, of the Washington Department of Transportation.

Staff writers David Wickert and Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.

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