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Atlanta's tough commute gets even tougher after the collapse of a freeway bridge

The suspect is in jail.

But that is little comfort to the hundreds of thousands of Atlanta commuters trapped in the nightmare that authorities say he caused. A giant concrete slab of Interstate 85 — which carries 250,000 vehicles a day — collapsed during rush hour Thursday in a fire that police allege was set by 39-year-old Basil Eleby, who is homeless and has a string of drug and assault arrests.

Authorities say it could take 10 weeks to reopen the freeway.

As commuters contemplate how to get to work and back home, the experience is forcing the city to confront its massive sprawl, extreme dependence on the automobile and lack of investment in public transportation.

It is also leading to lots of finger-pointing — beyond Eleby, who faces charges of arson and criminal damage to property, and the two people arrested with him and charged with criminal trespassing. The three discussed smoking crack cocaine beneath the overpass before the fire started, according to an arrest warrant.

“In all my experiences wit crack &/or crackheads I ain't NEVER seen nothing like this … !!!,” the Grammy-winning hip-hop artist T.I. wrote on Twitter, with the hashtags #OnlyInAtlanta and #SomethingDontAddUp.

In an article headlined, “Sure. Blame the Crackhead,” George Chidi, a journalist for Georgiapol.com, rebuked the media for letting state officials off the hook.

He and others seized on the fact that the state transportation department had inadvertently provided the fuel for the fire: flammable spools of high-density polyethylene conduit left under the bridge.

“Let me state the obvious: whoever is responsible for storing material under the interstate that could melt a bridge had better still be in prison when Eleby gets out,” Chidi wrote. “The Department of Transportation bears the true burden for this disaster.”

Russell McMurry, the Transportation Department commissioner, said at a news conference Tuesday that the material was kept under the overpass — behind a fence with a locked gate — to use for other projects and save tax dollars.

He has asked the state fire marshal and insurance commissioner to investigate whether the practice still makes sense.

This week, commuters woke up before dawn to scour apps that lead them on long detours on narrow city streets or around the perimeter of Atlanta.

Many sought to avoid roads altogether by working from home or taking public transportation.

On a typical day, 400,000 people used the rail and bus lines of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, known as MARTA. The number of passengers on some lines Monday was up 50%.

Many commuters looked befuddled as they took trains Monday for the first time.

“It’s adding two hours a day to my commute, but I don’t have a choice,” shrugged Jon Stokes, 50, a property tax manager for Coca-Cola who took a bus and a train to downtown Atlanta from Buford, more than 35 miles to the northeast. “Hopefully, I’ll work at home at least one day a week.”

Leigh Smith, an executive assistant at a Midtown Atlanta law firm, got up before sunrise Monday to catch a bus in Buford. But after an hour and 15 minutes it still hadn’t shown up, so she resorted to calling her husband to drive her.

“It makes me want to quit my job,” she said.

For decades, efforts to expand the public transit system were blocked by suburban counties that feared it would bring the inner city to their communities, prompting some white residents to refer to MARTA as “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”

As recently as five years ago, voters rejected a $7.2-billion transportation plan that business leaders pitched as vital to solving the area’s traffic congestion.

Last year Atlantans voted overwhelmingly to give the city and MARTA permission to raise taxes to upgrade roads and expand rail and bus transit. But it will take years to see those benefits.

“We’re finding out the hard way that by over-relying on roads and low-occupancy transport, we’re vulnerable to any shock that might crowd the system,” said Simon Berrebi, a doctoral student at Georgia Institute of Technology and director of MARTA Army, an activist group seeking better public transportation.

Transportation experts and urban planners wonder whether the highway collapse will spur some commuters to adopt new, car-free routines on a more permanent basis.

“This is Atlanta’s chance to show that it can be more than a car-dominated city,” said Kari Watkins, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology’s school of civil and environmental engineering. “The question is whether there will be permanent change, or if we will just adapt for the moment and then switch back to old habits.”

Jarvie is a special correspondent.

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