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Atlanta’s roads already needed help. Then a bridge collapsed.

The eighth-worst city in the world for congestion is facing a looming infrastructure crisis.

The Atlanta skyline at night, photographed from the Jackson Street bridge overlooking Atlanta’s Downtown Connector.
Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Atlanta’s road problems seem to be multiplying.

In late March, a massive fire under an elevated section of one of the city’s major highways, I-85, caused a portion of the road to collapse. Monday morning saw the temporary shutdown of two additional sections of highway: An early-morning accident involving an SUV and a tractor-trailer caused a chemical spill that closed the city’s downtown connector for several hours; then around 11:30 am, a section of Interstate 20 buckled because of an underground gas leak, causing ongoing westbound lane closures. Reports have indicated that the incidents involved some injuries.

The night of the bridge collapse, drivers were directed away from the fire and off the highway before the bridge went down, and no injuries were reported. The fire was subsequently extinguished. Trucks from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, bringing foam typically used for plane crashes, reportedly rushed to the scene to help contain the blaze.

In the weeks since, there have been three arrests made in connection with the fire: two for criminal trespassing and one for first-degree criminal damage to property. The man charged with starting the fire, Basil Eleby, had 19 prior arrests on his record — but his lawyers have said that some blame should go to the Georgia Department of Transportation, which stored construction material under the bridge. Per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the state was storing several tons of coiled plastic piping, which ignited and fueled the fire.

Georgia officials expect the bridge to reopen by June 15, but the consequences of its closure have been dramatic. Even before Monday’s incidents, it was inevitable that the bridge collapse would reignite conversations about the city’s infrastructure problem, which Atlanta magazine summarized presciently and poetically in a 2012 feature story:

Like ghosts rising out of a Confederate cemetery, Atlanta’s past lapses in judgment haunt the region today, leaving a smoky trail of suburban decay, declining home values, clogged highways, and a vastly diminished reputation.

That problem happens to fall smack into a brewing debate in Washington about investing in infrastructure, but in ways that don’t fit neatly with the construction plans championed by President Trump.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who represents the city in Congress, promised the federal government would foot the bill for temporary repairs of the collapsed bridge with $10 million in emergency funds.

But Atlanta doesn’t just need its roads fixed. It needs better, smarter roads and realistic alternatives to driving — and it’s unclear if the city is on track to make these improvements before things get much worse.

Atlanta’s massive infrastructure problem

Most people don’t think of Atlanta as a sprawling, car-choked commuter nightmare on par with Los Angeles, but it is. This year, Atlanta ranked eighth on a list of 1,064 cities around the world for worst congestion, higher than Paris and Miami. Its metro system, MARTA, has historically been blocked from extending into several Atlanta suburbs, and has suffered chronic funding shortages since its inception in the 1960s.

The highway that partially collapsed on March 30, I-85, is one of two interstates that cut through the center of the city, along with I-75. For less than 7.5 miles, the two highways merge along a route called the Downtown Connector (which closed temporarily due to the chemical spill Monday morning). That route runs from north to south and is a major thoroughfare for commuters. In February, Georgia’s Department of Transportation estimated the Downtown Connector alone, those 7-plus miles, carried more than 437,000 vehicles per day “and provides critical access into the region’s core.”

The bridge collapse happened northeast of the Downtown Connector, but I-85 is blocked for miles beyond that. It is difficult to overestimate how disruptive shutting down even a section of I-85 will be to the city’s daily traffic flow. Atlanta’s Department of Transportation announced that a major portion of the highway is closed to all lanes of traffic indefinitely, as was a portion of the major road that runs underneath the bridge, Piedmont Road. (Piedmont is now partially reopened.) Georgia’s Department of Transportation devised a detour, but it takes commuters around the problem area in a large arc, on a road that only has four lanes.

The Georgia Department of Transportation’s detour plan.
Georgia Department of Transportation

A report by the Brookings Institution from 2015 captured the city’s commuter problem in a sentence: “In the Atlanta metro area, which spans 29 counties and contains more than 5 million people and 2 million jobs, the typical commute distance is 12.8 miles.” It was the longest commute in the country at the time of the study.

Atlanta has been growing at a staggering rate, both in population and in sprawl. While the city’s population is more than 460,000, the population of the metro area is more than 5.7 million. Another recent report by Brookings found that between 2013 and 2015 alone, the city grew by an estimated 255,000 residents. The Atlanta Regional Commission predicted that by 2040, the metro area will add another 2.5 million people.

The ARC also found last year that only 3.1 percent of Atlanta commuters used public transit. “Even fewer people walk or bicycle to their destination,” its report added. And apparently Atlantans are not ride sharing. In a recent comparison of the 15 largest metro areas in the US, Atlanta came in fifth for highest percentage of workers who drive to work alone: 77.7 percent.

With so many drivers on the road, perhaps it’s not surprising that late last year, a study published by the National Highway Traffic Association found that the highway that encircles Atlanta, I-285, was the deadliest in the country. The state, overall, was the seventh worst for fatal accidents.

The collapse highlights the need for infrastructure improvements

Atlanta is in desperate need of infrastructure overhaul, and it looks like that need is only going to get worse. Its urgency was punctuated last year by an increase of $750 million in the state’s budget for road and bridge improvements.

The severity of the situation has been in sharp relief since the day after the bridge collapse when, incidentally, the SunTrust Park stadium opened to the public for the first time for a Braves-Yankees exhibition game. The area around it already needed a comprehensive infrastructure project of its own before the collapse — the state and the county together invested millions into walking bridges, road improvements, and a shuttle service from a nearby shopping mall.

“The potential for major-league traffic tie-ups in the Atlanta Braves’ new neighborhood has long weighed on the minds of wary commuters and officials tasked with addressing it,” wrote Jennifer Brett in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the morning after the bridge collapse. “Then on the eve of the Braves’ debut at SunTrust Park, a pivotal chunk of asphalt literally disappears.”

Traffic before the home opener two weeks later was so highly anticipated that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a continuous live feed on the traffic beginning four hours before the game was set to start.

The city is, by lack of design, a mess. Downtown, there’s a grid pattern somewhat, but the majority of Atlanta developed organically. An excellent WABE story from a couple of years ago outlined how Atlanta got so convoluted: It was built around a railroad intersection, and in the 1800s settlers in Georgia could purchase land for very cheap through a large-scale lottery system.

What happened next, historian Farris Cadle told WABE, is that “landowners trying to maximize their profits from the sale [...] put a minimum amount of land in the streets, so the streets wound up with odd configurations and narrow widths.” They also, apparently, attempted to “make streets perpendicular or parallel to the railroad tracks and since trains like to twist and turn ... it’s messy,” said Cadle. “Atlanta became a big city and it had an odd and inconvenient street pattern.”

“Odd and inconvenient” puts it mildly. The city is famous for its “Spaghetti Junction,” where I-85 and I-285 come together in Northeast Atlanta, creating a concentration of overlapping raised roads and bridges that covers more than 300 acres.

The Tom Moreland Interchange, a.k.a. Spaghetti Junction.
United States Geological Survey

Other major construction projects consciously cut through vulnerable neighborhoods — like the establishment of the Downtown Connector, which gutted and divided a major area of black life in Atlanta in the 1950s and ’60s. Some efforts have been made to create new, smaller freeways to reconnect the city without burdening residential roads, but these have never been quick projects.

Take Atlanta’s Freedom Parkway for example. From the 1960s through the ’90s, the city was in heated off-and-on negotiations over the creation of what’s now known as Freedom Parkway and the 200-acre Freedom Park surrounding it. The 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta eventually gave the city a deadline, and the project ultimately moved forward, connecting neighborhoods and adding miles of park trails.

Another more recent project that has gotten national attention is the Atlanta BeltLine, a 22-mile network of abandoned railroads turned into walking and biking paths, which has been hailed by Curbed for “reducing sprawl, limiting car-dependence, and generating a vibrant cultural hub within the city of Atlanta.”

Similar projects could alleviate problems in areas like SunTrust Park’s new home, but as Atlanta grows, so will its number of drivers, and so will the distances they drive. This is especially inevitable if the alternative to driving Atlanta’s sprawling distances, the public transportation system MARTA, continues to languish.

The metro area has a history of intentionally starving the public transportation system as an expression of segregation — affluent, predominantly white counties have long resisted connecting with public transit. Old news to locals, this reality made national headlines in 2014 when two inches of snow and a poorly timed weather dismissal strategy left thousands of Atlanta drivers stuck in traffic for hours.

It doesn’t take a disaster to see what’s wrong with MARTA, though. Last year, Curbed published an analysis of a recent study on Atlanta’s transit system titled: “Atlanta Needs to Step Up Its Transit Game Now.” At the top of the piece, in a depiction of several metro transit systems side by side, MARTA’s inadequacy is immediately visually obvious: Compared with the veiny systems of other cities, Atlanta’s transit lines are T-shaped, and … that’s it. No substantive offshoots, only four paltry lines, which overlap. It looks like an empty x-y axis.

Expanding MARTA might actually not be a pipe dream

The Curbed piece goes on to identify the major benefits Atlanta could expect if it did invest in its public transportation system. An expansion investment of $8 billion could be expected to bring in:

A $5.2 billion increase in Gross Regional Product;

A $4.2 billion increase to personal income with the majority of this increase occurring in counties currently not serviced by MARTA;

Approximately $3.6 billion more in disposable income for households within the 20-county region;

An additional $116 million annually in wages for the Atlanta region;

Commuter travel-time savings of over $1.8 billion total.

There are a few glimmers of hope that an investment of this nature could actually happen — and soon.

A recent study found that more than 80 percent of Atlantans wish they had better MARTA access. In November, Atlanta residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of two major public transportation ballot measures that had previously failed to gain momentum: one that would introduce a half-cent sales tax aimed at generating $2.5 billion for MARTA in the next 40 years, and one that would introduce a four-tenths of a penny sales tax aimed at generating $300 million in five years for last mile and sustainable transit, including a bike-share program, sidewalk improvements, and BeltLine expansions.

And even Cobb County, home of the new Braves stadium — which has refused MARTA expansions into the county for decades, even as other holdouts have evolved on the topic, and which will likely find itself strangled by traffic — is apparently warming to idea of buying in.

The really big-dollar question is whether America’s new federal infrastructure push — if it even happens — will boost transit projects or improvements to existing roads. In February, President Trump announced that he planned to ask Congress for $1 trillion in infrastructure investment, seemingly through a mix of federal and private funding, though he was characteristically short on details. The week of the bridge collapse, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao affirmed the ask, describing it as “a strategic, targeted program of investment valued at $1 trillion over 10 years.”

Donald Trump Delivers Address To Joint Session Of Congress
During his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Trump announced plans to ask for $1 trillion in infrastructure investment.
Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo - Pool/Getty Images

It’s unclear how much, if any, of that money could help the needs of places like Atlanta. On the campaign trail, Trump proposed an unorthodox (to say the least) financing mechanism that would encourage new private infrastructure projects by offering tax credits to contractors. Those contractors would focus on projects that generated revenue — such as toll roads or bridges.

It’s hard to see how such a system would encourage private investment in Atlanta’s congestion problems, or a privately operated mass transit system. Even if the government more directly funded projects, there would be reasons to bet against Atlanta getting them. In January, you might recall, Rep. Lewis skipped Trump’s inauguration.

Trump responded with some angry tweets. “John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S.,” he wrote. "I can use all the help I can get!"