The Road Less Traveled

The opening of the northbound half of I-85 a mere six weeks after its collapse merits a word or two of praise.

I’ve held the engineering staff of the Georgia Department of Transportation in high regard, an impression I first formed more than 10 years ago. I spent many days covering the construction of the crazy overpasses at GA-316 in Gwinnett for the AJC, walking the construction zones with the department’s spokeswoman Teri Pope.

Half the state is now going to wonder why it takes two years to build a bridge. The speed of this can, I think, be attributed to four factors.

First, metro Atlanta more or less wanted to burn down GDOT headquarters after the fire, on general principles. The bridge collapse was a tremendous black eye for the department, and there’s nothing like a construction engineering success to rebuild some public trust.

Second, it’s considerably easier to build a bridge when you are working from a known design, and don’t need to obtain new rights-of-way and new engineering plans. This isn’t new.

Third, a $3.1 million incentive for Marietta-based C.W. Matthews Contracting Co. Inc., to complete it early is a tremendous motivator. The total cost will be around $20 million, which is expensive … but a lot less expensive than taking extra time. My thumbnail guess is that the state economy was losing between $1 million and $2 million a day while the bridge was down. That cost means using expensive quick-dry cement becomes a financially-viable decision.

And last, the bidding for this construction was not subject to normal procurement rules, which made the entire process faster. That, however, meant setting aside requirements to seek minority and women-owned construction firms for some of the work, a point Georgia NAACP leader — and attorney for accused bridge-burner Basil Eleby — was particularly sore about last month when discussing the aftermath of the fire.

Eleby received a release on bond last month, and is staying in a residential drug treatment facility a five-minute walk from the courthouse.

I spent some time walking his old neighborhood in the week after the fire. Whatever else, Eleby was well known to folks on Piedmont Road, sleeping in an old car behind a repair shop, 200 feet from the bridge and about 400 from the illegal skate park under I-85.

My opinion about the relative culpability in this case remains unchanged. GDOT should have sold the plastic fiberoptic cable insulation a decade ago instead of storing it under a bridge. I await answers from the federal probe, and I expect the department to take some responsibility.

But handling the reconstruction of the bridge with professional engineering skill, without allowing it to be bogged down in politically-driven idiocy or apparent corruption, is a good first step toward making amends. Thanks.


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