Monday’s highway mishaps heighten Atlanta’s transportation pain

A big rig filled with chemicals overturns before dawn on the Downtown Connector, a highway that police said it shouldn’t have even been on in the first place, leading to yet another morning of gridlock for commuters.

Then before noon, a portion of I-20 in DeKalb County suddenly buckles, turning the asphalt into a ski jump blocking westbound traffic.

LATEST:2-3 lanes of I-20 to reopen by 5 p.m.

I-85 COLLAPSE:Who’s to blame?

Welcome to Monday in metro Atlanta where apparently our fragile infrastructure hates us.

As Twitter user @AtlBarry put it: “Quick … somebody go bubble wrap Spaghetti Junction before it’s too late!!!!”

The shutdown of two freeways would be bad enough on any day. But Monday’s troubles come just a little more than two weeks after a portion of I-85 came crashing down — the seemingly unlikely result of a homeless man allegedly lighting a fire under an overpass where the state Department of Transportation for years stored cabling that we now know can burn hot enough to level a major bridge.

While the causes of the traffic headaches are each very different, they are feeding a sense of exasperation and disbelief among the city’s weary commuters. And they also underscore how vulnerable the region is to disruptions in its transportation infrastructure.

Irritation over another day of transportation snafus hit metro Atlantans of all stripes.

Even billionaire philanthropist and Turner Broadcasting founder Ted Turner weighed in, tweeting from his official handle: “Atlanta needs effective, equitable transit solutions that work for everyone. Let’s get #MovingTogetherATL.”

Thankfully, Monday’s woes appear to be short-term, and not the months-long reconstruction underway on I-85 that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of displaced commuters. Lanes affected by the chemical spill on I-75/I-85 opened again within hours; meanwhile, GDOT said some of the I-20 westbound lanes that buckled were reopened by 5 p.m. Monday, while the rest were expected to open as early as noon Tuesday.

It also doesn’t necessarily mean Atlanta is unlucky.

“It just tells you how important our transportation infrastructure is,” said Randall Guensler, professor of transportation systems engineering at Georgia Tech. “That’s true here and everywhere else.”

Guensler said closing a highway — for a few hours or a few months — is “really painful” for a community. The resulting traffic congestion forces motorists to figure out alternative routes or schedules.

“The good news is, we’re trying to get stuff fixed as fast as we can,” he said.

Crash leads to chaos

Monday’s motoring mayhem started at about 3 a.m. when Mitchell Epstein from Memphis, Tenn., stopped his 2013 Acura MDX SUV in the middle of the Downtown Connector to change lanes, according to an Atlanta police report. A tractor-trailer hauling benzoyl chloride, driven by Matthew Bowden, whose address wasn’t listed in the report, tried to avoid the stopped SUV. When the vehicles collided, it causedthe big rig to overturn, the report said.

The force of the crash caused the semi to spill its load of a chemical compound that can be used in dyes and resins and can be toxic if inhaled and cause burns to the skin and eyes.

The crash led to the shutdown of I-75/I-85 in the middle of the city for hours as crews cleaned up the noxious smelling liquid.

Police found Epstein, bleeding and disoriented, walking south in the northbound lanes of the Connector. The police report said Epstein was ticketed for having an expired and suspended license. He was also cited for improper stopping in a roadway and an improper lane change.

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The trucker, meanwhile, shouldn’t have been hauling his load through the city, officials said.

Captain Mark Wesley, the head of the state Department of Public Safety Motor Carrier Compliance division, said the trucker was in violation of state law for driving inside I-285.

“He was inside the Perimeter when he should have been on the Perimeter,” Wesley said. “He was cutting through.”

Big rigs that don’t have business within the city aren’t supposed to drive inside I-285.

According to state law, trucks are only allowed to use the Downtown Connector for pick up or delivery to or from a shipper based inside I-285; going to or from the carrier’s terminal inside the Perimeter; going to or from a repair facility; or if a driver is going to or from a residence inside the Perimeter.

Bowden was ticketed for the offense by Atlanta police. Wesley did not know the driver’s planned destination.

A message left with the Savannah company that owns the truck, Dickey Truck Leasing, which does business as Greatwide American Trans-Freight, was not immediately returned. Attempts to reach Bowden also weren’t successful.

The issue of truck drivers going into the city to get around bottlenecks on I-285 is fairly common, though Wesley said he had no data to show whether the problem has worsened since the collapse of the I-85 bridge. Local police and state authorities make stops to try to find violators.

“Atlanta being such a high traffic area, we do have truckers that try to slip through,” Wesley said.

Section of I-20 buckled

Also on I-20 Monday afternoon, all westbound lanes between Candler and Gresham roads were closed for several hours after the asphalt buckled in the HOV lane.

The incident immediately sent social media into a tizzy.

“Welcome to Atlanta where the playas play … and the highways collapse like everyday,” Twitter user @B_NERD wrote.

State Department of Transportation officials were on the scene trying to understand what happened. Shortly before 3 p.m., GDOT officials said in a statement that the incident was likely caused by some underground utility component.

Officials said Monday afternoon that two to three lanes of westbound I-20 should be open by 5 p.m. with the road fully repaired by noon Tuesday.

A motorcyclist was severely injured when his bike struck the buckled section. The biker had multiple fractures and his leg was likely broken, paramedic Dennis Pierre Charles said.

As he tried to help, Charles said he watched the bump in the road grow.

“The roadway just started getting higher and higher,” Charles said.

Michael Hunter, associate professor of transportation systems engineering at Georgia Tech, said the series of unrelated highway closures highlights how much the nation — not just Atlanta — depends on its transportation infrastructure. He said it also raises questions — like, are we spending enough on maintenance? — that the public normally doesn’t think about.

On that count, Hunter said Georgia is doing better than most.

“You can always make a case for more,” he said. “But relative to other states, Georgia’s doing a pretty good job.”

I-85 repairs on track

Meanwhile, contractor C.W. Matthews continues working 24 hours a day to rebuild the broken stretch of I-85 in Buckhead that showed just how fragile the region’s infrastructure is.

GDOT Construction Director Marc Mastronardi said 20 of the 61 beams needed to support the bridge deck should be in place Monday night. The remaining beams should be delivered by early next week.

Mastronardi said GDOT’s target completion date of June 15 remains “very achievable.”

Atlanta Police Chief Erica Shields told WABE on Monday the overturned rig and chemical spill “was not good, but it was as good as it could be, in light of the fact that it was on the south side of the city.”

“I’m concerned not just about the accident, but just when it rains,” she said. “Because our drivers never slow down … We’re one accident away from it really being a nightmare.”

— Staff writers Ellen Eldridge and Eric Stirgus contributed to this report.

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