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The Question Of Responsibility For I-85 Fire Heats Up

April 17, 2017

While the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) has repeatedly deflected blame for the I-85 fire and collapse, others remain skeptical. Shortly after the road gave way, GDOT officials told the public and investigators that there was no way they could foresee any scenario where the roadway would collapse because of trespassers performing an illegal act under the bridge. Certainly, as the narrative goes, they could not anticipate a fire taking down 700 feet of roadway, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in damages. Notwithstanding the official GDOT stance, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Georgia fire marshal's office are investigating what happened, and why.

The investigation has opened up a renewed focus by community activists and others to address what goes on in the shadows under Georgia's overpasses and bridges. These places under the bridges and highways and out of the immediate eye of the public are home to many of the area's homeless. GDOT officials are aware how the roadways for which they bear responsibility for constructing and maintaining also provide shelter for the homeless. GDOT officials should have been aware as well that the homeless make fires out of whatever flammable materials they can find to produce light and heat to help them survive.

It begs the questions then if GDOT knew, or should have known, about the plight of the people seeking shelter under the interstate, as to why they took a chance by storing valuable construction materials under the bridge. GDOT officials indicated at a recent press conference that a fence secured the area in which they stored the materials with a locked gate. GDOT's claim that the area is safe was debunked. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the materials were fenced in but were not secure at all. Rather, the gate, although locked, was pulled apart to permit easy passage by anyone who wished the pass through the gate. The reality was hardly the scenario painted by GDOT. But, GDOT finally admitted that the fence was there to prevent people from walking off with materials and not to prevent people entering the area.

There is another portion of the underpass in question to which people still have access. Reports have surfaced over the last couple of days of a skateboard park that was built under the road. Photographs of the skateboard park depict bumps, humps, and jumps, which spans nearly the length of a football field. The surface is constructed of concrete. GDOT also stated that someone constructed the skateboard park without permit or permission.

Will GDOT rethink the wisdom of storing construction materials under roadways?

GDOT should revisit the question. Although they claim that storing the materials under the road was a way to preserve expensive items that could have been used for other public works projects, GDOT and other officials now know that there is a danger to the public if they do not take measures to prevent vandalism to materials stored under the road. A spokesperson said that they will investigate the wisdom of the continued practice. A smattering of states do not permit storing materials under roads, but as of right now, no federal regulations are in place that prohibits the practice.

Not all of the blame for the road collapse should be laid at the feet of the GDOT. Someone did start the fire. Police allege that a homeless man lit a sofa on fire with a crack pipe, which spread to the materials stored nearby.

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