The Untold Story of the Rapid Response Behind the I-85 Rebuild
By Lori Johnston
The heads of the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), MARTA and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) are on a text-friendly basis. That’s the first thing you need to know to understand how the Interstate 85 (I-85) bridge collapse moved from crisis to recovery in such a coordinated fashion and resulted in a shorter-than-expected period of pain for the approximately 250,000 motorists who drive Atlanta’s downtown connector daily.
The timely and organized response began with short, hurried texts during evening rush hour on Thursday, March 30, helping to kick start the coordinated plans for communicating information about the collapse and employing engineering solutions to reroute travelers and repair the bridge.
MARTA CEO Keith T. Parker’s office is a third of a mile from the bridge collapse, which gave him a distinct vantage point when GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry texted him, “Is Armour Yard on fire?” That’s MARTA’s railcars facility just west of the interstate.
“I broke to him the bad news that, ‘No, Armour Yard is not on fire, it’s your bridge,’” Parker recalled earlier this summer. “I literally stepped out my office and walked about one block over. That’s when I got a real grasp of just how much smoke was out there.”
News reports of the fire aired while Chris Tomlinson, Executive Director of GRTA and the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA), was at the state capitol for the last day of the 2017 legislative session. The first text he sent was to McMurry. He was concerned the headquarters for HERO (Highway Emergency Response Operators), a GDOT division that provides roadway assistance, was on fire.
“He quickly shot back, ‘No.’ From that, I knew two things: Good, at least those people weren’t directly in harm’s way. But, the short answer was uncharacteristic. I also knew he was running around, getting the situation together,” Tomlinson says. “It was being able to reach out to him directly, but also having done it previously in non-crisis situations, that I was able to read tone and know, wow, this is big and this is growing.”
Having existing relationships with those and other agencies, such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the Atlanta Police Department and Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), was a “true blessing,” says Atlanta Fire Rescue Chief Joel G. Baker. “At the end of the day, it’s about relationships before the crisis happens,” he adds. “When those crises happen, it’s not the first time they’re hearing your voice.”
At the same time of the leaders’ text exchanges, text chains were growing among GDOT workers, across agencies and with potential contractors and suppliers. Throughout the response and rebuild, texts, emails and phone calls were answered 24-7, with no delay.
Engineers helped lead the way in the crisis, rebuild and recovery, as local, state and federal agencies joined together with private partners and companies.
“The ripple effects of the I-85 bridge collapse were quickly seen as we jumped into action planning detour routes, coordinating with our transit partners to expand service and working with our engineers to optimize signal timing throughout all effected corridors,” McMurry says. “The successes we had during this crisis all boiled down to teamwork.”
COORDINATED AND TRANSPARENT COMMUNICATIONS
The first onsite press conference late Thursday night demonstrated the quick, collective effort already in effect. Leaders of key transportation and emergency response agencies participated in the joint media briefing, along with Governor Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “There was nobody elbowing each other for territory,” Parker says.
“Everybody that night really set the framework: this is a team effort, this is going to impact everybody and we’re all going to work together going forward,” adds Meg Pirkle, P.E., GDOT’s Chief Engineer.
On Friday, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) announced the $10 million in emergency reconstruction aid it would send to assist with the repair efforts. GDOT was dedicated to giving regular press briefings with the Commissioner and leaders of departments, such as Construction and Traffic Operations. “The public wanted to hear from the people who were actually making the decisions,” says Natalie Dale, GDOT’s Media and Government Relations Liaison. She adds that media personnel were also given access to the site frequently to capture photos and video.
“The communication related to the highway reconstruction process and timeline shines a light on the milestones of the project,” McMurry says. “This ongoing effort showed transparency, set expectations, advised media and the traveling public on the complexity of the project itself, and positioned GDOT as the go-to resource for a highly visible project impacting the region.”
Information such as up-to-date traffic and location maps, information and graphics on road closures and alternate routes, and links to transit and routing information were pushed out on agency websites, including GDOT’s quickly launched I-85 Rebuild webpage, 511ga.org, gacommuteoptions.com and the Atlanta Regional Commission’s website, as well as social media channels. GDOT promoted #I85rebuild on all its Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. “Both the media and public were hungry for information and updates, and we were able to provide that across multiple sources,” Dale adds.
“Whatever was being done, we were communicating in real time,” says Marc Mastronardi, GDOT’s Director of Construction. “For example, with a beam being set – I’m out there telling you the update and you’re watching it happen. It builds and maintains credibility, which to me, is fragile today.”
Atlanta-based OxBlue Construction Cameras provided exclusive live video footage and documentation of the rebuilding project by using two cameras on the site – one streaming live HD video and a fixed-position construction camera that was later used to construct a time-lapse of the project. “I know people all over the country saw it, and we could also sit there and look at the site and see what’s going on. We were watching it constantly. That was a huge tool and success for us,” says Bill DuVall, GDOT’s head of Bridge Design and Maintenance.
MOVING FROM CRISIS TO RECOVERY
Mastronardi’s first notification about the collapse came from his brother-in-law: You’re going to be putting in some overtime, he warned. “I didn’t know what that meant, until I turned on the TV,” he says. “Then, I kissed my wife and got in the car.” Shortly afterwards, Mastronardi himself began to give updates.
Pirkle was watching a lacrosse game at Grady High School when Dale called her about the fire. “So, I look, and there it is,” she remembers. She made her way to GDOT’s emergency operations center, where traffic management, bridge inspection, construction and communications teams met, and a number of group texts began to coordinate efforts among GDOT workers and partners.
While traffic operations focused on moving commuters around Atlanta and the bridge department concentrated on the design, Mastronardi says his attention was on resources, in terms of supplies and people.
Marietta-based C.W. Matthews’ President Dan Garcia also contacted GDOT officials via text as he ate dinner watching the news. The state’s largest roadway contractor was working on a job at Old Peachtree Road on I-85 in Gwinnett County. Within 10 minutes, Garcia heard back. The company was first asked to provide traffic control materials, such as barrels, signs, light plants and message boards.
But Pirkle and her team knew they would be dealing with a long-term detour and quickly needed a new bridge design. By 10 p.m., C.W. Matthews officials were on the site, talking to bridge designers. Around midnight, C.W. Matthews started mobilizing loaders, grading machines and demolition equipment.
Early Friday morning, they contacted D.H. Griffin Companies for the demolition, which began before the fire was even extinguished and while the National Transportation Safety Board was still investigating. The damage, they later learned, had extended to six spans totaling 350 feet southbound and northbound.
A DESIGN-BUILD PROCESS
The decision to negotiate with C.W. Matthews the night of the collapse, with full agreement and funding from FHWA, which Rodney Barry, P.E., Division Administrator for the Georgia Division of FHWA represented, was vital to the timing of the project, Pirkle says. Typically, GDOT must advertise the project, accept and review submissions, and consider bids.
With no bid process required in an emergency situation, GDOT instead relied on the relationship and trust developed over the years and many projects completed with C.W. Matthews. The cost of the demolition work was tracked and submitted to GDOT, and Moreland Altobelli Associates, Inc., which handled construction engineering and inspections, did the same with its records of contractor employees and materials throughout the project.
“When we saw the damage that was done from the fire, it was obvious that everything had to be very quick. GDOT really should be commended, as well as C.W. Matthews, for being so aggressive,” says Buddy Gratton, President of Duluth-based Moreland Altobelli. The company, founded in 1987 and headed by former GDOT Commissioner Thomas D. Moreland, P.E., had an existing contract with GDOT for that district.
For the bridge construction, C.W. Matthews separately submitted pricing, but it was not in competition with other bidders. In what Garcia describes as a mediation-like meeting with GDOT and FHWA officials, C.W. Matthews presented its price. The government then responded with its pricing estimate, and a mutual deal was eventually reached between the two. The maximum of $3.1 million in incentives for completing the project prior to the original June 15 deadline also was agreed upon.
In discussions that weekend with the beam manufacturer, Standard Concrete, GDOT decided to use the 63-inch Bulb-Tee beams, which were not the same as the original beams, but were similar. If GDOT had chosen to use the original beams, which aren’t often in use now, they would have had to wait longer for them to be produced. The Bulb-Tee beams, however, were produced on a daily basis, says Adam Grist, Vice President of Structures for C.W. Matthews, ideal for the quick rebuild timeline.
GDOT also determined that 61 concrete beams, which were the same height as the original ones, would be needed. The goal was to deliver a new bridge design to C.W. Matthews by midnight Sunday. “This timeline couldn’t have been met without our bridge engineers tackling the problem for three days straight,” Pirkle says.
As the bridge staff – about 15 people working at any given time – developed pieces of the plan, they shared them with C.W. Matthews, Standard Concrete, Augusta Iron and Steel and other subcontractors. “In a typical situation, we don’t do that,” DuVall says. “It’s almost like a design-build project and it saved a tremendous amount of time.”
If GDOT had done the demolition and been waiting for designs and materials, the project would not have opened when it did. “GDOT’s ability to get the design finished and the pre-stressed beams ordered as quickly as possible made the project a success,” Gratton says.
Officials with C.W. Matthews credit immediate response for moving the project along. “The communication never stopped,” Grist says. Garcia adds: “They also had staff there with experience that could make a call out on the field rather than going through some lengthy process.”
C.W. Matthews’ crew was comprised of 100 employees who each worked at least four weeks on the project. In a 24-hour day, approximately 13 constructor and subcontractor crews were on site. The subcontractors and five vendors had previously worked on C.W. Matthews roadway projects.
Moreland Altobelli used between 15-20 people around the clock, from the day after the collapse through the bridge’s re-opening, to deliver their portion of the project. The firm’s two to three workers per shift included retirees who were brought back for the project. “This obviously was the biggest emergency project that we’ve worked and was so crucial to the traveling public of metro Atlanta,” Gratton adds.
EMPLOYING ENGINEERING KNOW-HOW
When the bridge collapsed, GDOT administrators and engineers, including Monica Flournoy, the state Materials Engineer, received calls, texts and emails from companies and suppliers wanting to help. “I think that says a lot about our industry. In the time of a crisis, we pull together because they truly are our partners,” says Flournoy, whose office is part of the Construction Division.
The Tuesday after the collapse, C.W. Matthews and Thomas Concrete began meeting with GDOT and its materials and testing office to get approval for an accelerated concrete mix that would satisfy the design requirements. Thomas Concrete already was on GDOT’s qualified products list, which also sped up the process.
Accelerated mixes are costlier, but can reach design strength in 72 hours, opposed to 14 to 28 days for regular mixes. “When you’re trying to offset cost versus speed, something has to give,” C.W. Matthews’ Grist says.
For the ready mix portion of the project, the lab made concrete cylinders that test the compressive strength of the concrete to determine if it can handle the load. The bridge design also specified that fibers were needed in the columns, which were being retrofitted, and one major decision was the number of pounds of fiber that needed to go into the concrete mix. Testing on the first cylinders began within a week of the bridge collapse, says Flournoy, and needed to be broken in 24-hour cycles, instead of the standard period of seven to 28 days.
“Even if they poured a column at three o’clock in the morning, 24 hours later we had to test that cylinder to ensure we had the appropriate strength, to ensure we could move to the next segment of the job,” Flournoy says. “That’s unique for us. Our office doesn’t typically work around the clock like that.”
Questions and adjustments were handled day and night. “We had constant communication, even at four o’clock in the morning when somebody would send out a question or a shop drawing, until our part was really all done. Everybody stayed on top of it,” DuVall says.
Materials and testing worked with C.W Matthews and Thomas Concrete on the high-early strength concrete mix for the deck, which included a fairly new additive called PREVent-C. It’s almost like an insurance policy, Flournoy says, to keep cracks from appearing once poured. It is also the first bridge deck where GDOT has incorporated PREVent-C.
KEEPING THE CITY MOVING
From the blaze to the re-opening, state and county agencies worked together to adjust traffic patterns and roadways using Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) solutions.
HERO units, in coordination with law enforcement agencies and the Georgia State Patrol, used standard operating procedures for the closure of I-85 and rerouting of traffic, says Andrew Heath, GDOT’s State Traffic Engineer. But other road closures were a real-time situation, and GDOT’s traffic engineers had never practiced for this type of scenario. “We had to adjust and come up with detours on the fly with the help of our technology,” Heath says.
GDOT relied on its NaviGAtor system, an intelligent transportation system deployed throughout metro Atlanta, to provide the right information to the public, who could sign up for My511GA text and email alerts.
In addition, the Regional Traffic Operations Program (RTOP), a multi-jurisdictional communications management system, allowed GDOT to remotely adjust traffic signal timing. An estimated three dozen signal engineers remotely logged in to implement timing plans. Traffic patterns varied across the 10 metro Atlanta counties from the time of the collapse until the re-opening and required frequent monitoring and modifications.
“I-285 became the main detour,” Heath says. “People were looking for ways in and out of the city – anything along the I-285 radius. We were making adjustments as-needed throughout the region and saw some very strange patterns arise.” For example, the team saw spikes in traffic along Memorial Drive, well south of the closure.
“The work that’s been done by the engineering community over the last 20 years, from a technology standpoint, was invaluable throughout this event,” Heath says. “We were able to leverage this technology to help push more vehicles along roads that typically don’t handle that amount of traffic.”
But they couldn’t just rely on technology. Meetings among GDOT, the contractors, local law enforcement and other agencies, such as MARTA, served as a feedback loop. Leaders from each agency discussed details such as traffic issues and pinch points, and they pooled resources and common approaches, such as adjusting the timing of lights, re-striping sections of roads and creating turn lanes.
A RAPID AND FLEXIBLE TRANSIT RESPONSE
A vital step, Parker says, was when Gov. Deal and Mayor Reed said with confidence, “Take MARTA,” starting during the Thursday night press conference. “A few years ago, that wouldn’t have happened,” he says.
Drivers were also urged to stay off I-85, and to carpool and telework when they could. GDOT projects that the region experienced seven percent fewer drivers during the closure. “That’s hundreds of thousands of people who decided to find another way – to either work from home, to look at flex options or to take transit and other modes,” Heath says.
On MARTA’s end, once Parker determined there was no direct damage to MARTA property, he contacted Tomlinson to coordinate efforts. Tomlinson and McMurry both sit on the MARTA Board as non-voting members. “We have constant communication,” Parker says.
MARTA extended bus and train service that night. A critical step, Parker says, was cutting deals with partners, including parking lot owners near stations, who could provide additional capacity for Park ’n’ Ride users, as well as Uber and Lyft, which provided half price rides, or even greater discounts, to people heading to MARTA stations.
MARTA experienced an initial surge of 25 percent in ridership the Friday following the I-85 bridge collapse. During the weeks while the bridge was under repair, it experienced an 11 percent increase in system activity. The agency didn’t have a huge reserve fleet of trains or buses, or even workers, to handle the growth. Instead, employees’ schedules were shuffled and track work plans were pushed back in order to find people to work extra shifts and secure the equipment needed.
To aid in its communication efforts, MARTA also developed a website to provide updates on the availability of parking spaces throughout the service area and instructions about the closest lots, if commuters’ first options filled up. MARTA had an on-time performance appearance of 97.5 percent and above on most days, Parker says. “The reliability was pretty incredible,” he adds.
RETHINKING ROUTES AND THE WORK DAY
Commuters were encouraged to find alternative routes and modes of transportation, and to change their work behaviors, such as altered hours, teleworking and carpooling.
GRTA leveraged its joint procurement agreement with Gwinnett County Transit to outsource its transit operations to Transdev, the largest private sector provider of multiple modes of transportation in North America. The two organizations entered into the agreement in July 2016, less than a year before the partnership would prove invaluable.
Gwinnett’s buses run along I-85 and needed to be rerouted. “Now we were in a coordinated fashion because we had the same operator providing both of our services and we were able to talk to them about changing routes – and how to have enough drivers and buses to essentially create brand new service by the morning,” says Tomlinson, who arrived at GDOT’s Traffic Management Center with representatives from other transportation and response agencies around 10 p.m. Thursday night.
The new MARTA feeder service routers started Friday morning. But to free up part of its 166-bus fleet, some trade-offs were necessary, Tomlinson says. Two routes that run from Forsyth County down Georgia 400 were changed. Both stopped at the northernmost MARTA station, instead of continuing to other stations or downtown Atlanta. They operated like a shuttle, which freed up buses and drivers for the new MARTA feeder routes on I-85.
Another unprecedented move was using HOV lanes on I-85 for registered vehicles with three or more riders, instead of the usual two riders, which gave GRTA Express buses and Gwinnett Transit routes an almost speed-limit ride, Tomlinson says.
Parker urged MARTA employees, particularly customer service agents and police officers, to “overdo it” with friendliness and patience. “Even when a customer is treating us in the most undignified manner, our job is to give them the most dignified ridership experience than they ever expected,” he told them. “That’s why I think, long-term, this will have a significant positive impact on the transit system.”
In the end, GDOT estimates the cost was roughly $850,000 in economic impact and delay for commuters for every day the bridge was down. Rajeev Dhawan, Carl R. Zwerner Chair of Economic Forecasting and Director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business, says people continued to spend, but in areas not affected by the collapse, as they took alternative routes and modes of transportation. “People changed their behavior,” he says.
On Saturday, May 13, the northbound side of the $16.6 million new span re-opened to the public, followed by the southbound side one day later. It was five weeks ahead of schedule. For the commuters and nearby businesses who relied so heavily on the artery, as well as Georgia’s transportation leaders, engineers, construction workers and contractors who worked non-stop on the project, it was a huge victory – and one that took just 46 days to complete.
“From an engineering side, especially on the civil engineer side, it is just amazing how you can go from this collapsed bridge on March 30 to an open bridge on May 14,” Flournoy says. “It was all about teamwork, and our communications plan was excellent.”