Robert MacPherson, PE


Where were you on Thursday night, March 30th, 2017 when the I-85 northbound bridge caught fire and collapsed? I was at a downtown Atlanta restaurant having dinner with an out-of-town client.

As we began our discussions, nearby TV screens began showing aerial scenes of a major fire under an I-85 bridge. What unfolded in front of our eyes was almost surreal, one of those events that trigger memories of where you were, whom you were with, and what you were doing.

The collapse was caused by an intense fire that occurred when high-density polyethylene pipes (HDPE) were set ablaze. A homeless man who was allegedly smoking under the bridge has been accused of igniting the pipes that are used in fiber-optic networks and traffic management. Regardless of the cause, all we could think about was how long would it take to restore the bridge and allow one of the most congested points of the Interstate Highway System to return to normal operations. A few of us even wagered on when we thought traffic would return to I-85.

As I ponder an event that has impacted most of Metro Atlanta (even though I don’t live anywhere near the bridge, my morning commute has almost doubled as a result), I watched with admiration as our Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) acted decisively to repair and reopen this vital transportation corridor. GDOT took some unusual, but very necessary steps for this $16.6 million project:

– No-bid contract with an experienced highway contractor
– Strong financial incentives to reopen by June 15th and stronger incentives for finishing before then
– Round-the-clock inspections of the fast-paced work

GDOT has handled this crisis with professionalism and composure and illustrated to us all how to address infrastructure crises.

Many of my clients invest considerable time and resources preparing for the unexpected. They have contingency plans for their water and wastewater treatment plants, distribution and collection systems, IT infrastructure, etc. The key, in my opinion, is preparation and decisiveness when the crisis occurs.

I remember getting a call one Friday afternoon around 4:00pm. “Rob, we’ve had a road collapse. Can you come help?” I responded affirmatively and immediately went to the site to assess the situation. My team at Prime Engineering moved quickly. On Saturday, we conducted a survey. On Sunday, we analyzed the data and prepared a base drawing. On Monday, we had a design to fix the problem. On Tuesday, the chosen contractor began repairing the road.

As taxpayers, commuters, and colleagues, we salute the work of GDOT and the contractors working to get us back on the road. As a veteran of helping clients respond to crises, their performance has been truly impressive.

By the way, I bet that it would be ready by Memorial Day. The most recent prediction from GDOT is May 15th, a full month ahead of schedule. That’s a bet I’ll gladly lose.

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