ATLANTA — It is the news drivers across metro Atlanta have been waiting to hear for six weeks – Interstate 85 has reopened.
The northbound lanes opened Friday and the southbound lanes opened Saturday afternoon.
"I think that's incredible. I think they all deserve like a six month long vacation, a paid vacation," driver Courtney Shay said.
Crews worked 24/7 since March 30 to rebuild the overpass bridge that collapsed after a massive fire that burned underneath brought it down.
Georgia Department of Transportation crews started removing the barrels that held drivers back for so long around 6 p.m. Friday. Pacer cars led the first drivers onto the freshly opened northbound lanes of the interstate just after 7 p.m. It was the same process Saturday for the southbound lanes, which opened just before 6 p.m.
[TIMELINE: In just 6 weeks, I-85 reopens for traffic]
"Now I don't have to wiggle around and find alternate routes," driver Darrien Anderson said.
Drivers are excited for their commutes to return to normal.
"My normal 10 minute commute became a 40 minute commute, so as soon as this gets going again, it will be much better," driver Erin McFadden said.
The rebuild has happened faster than anyone expected, but GDOT workers and the contractor that was head of the massive project, are adamant that the project was no rush-job.
"We've said it time and time again, there was a lot of inspection on the bridge, but beyond that we obviously want to deliver a good product because we know so many people are counting on it," said the president of C.W. Matthews, Dan Garcia.
Garcia praised his team for the work they did to complete the project.
"These guys worked hard, and I think they should be commended for the work they've done the last 45 days.
"To be able to completely demolish the damaged sections of a bridge, and totally replace it and open it up again for business as usual in just six short weeks, we may have set some records in the process of doing that," Gov. Nathan Deal said Wednesday.
GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry was quick to quell any public concerns over that record pace impacting safety.
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"Absolutely it is safe, in fact, we've had at least 10 inspectors a day totaling some 2,500 man hours of inspection starting throughout the entire process," McMurry told Channel 2's Aaron Diamant.
McMurry described GDOT's and contractor C.W. Matthews' focus on safety from the design work, to the fabrication and placement of key components, to intense testing of materials like concrete and steel.
"We feel confident that all the testing has been done, that it is safe and that it is a quality project," McMurry told Diamant.
"I knew that we could rise to the challenge and that our team would do a great job,"Garcia said.
By hitting the May 15 target date, C.W. Matthews will collect $3.1 million in incentives, which Garcia said the company will share with its workers.
THANKING THE CREWS
One restaurant showed its gratitude to the workers on Friday.
Lunch was “on the house” for the workers who re-built the overpass.
Channel 2's Berndt Petersen was at the restaurant at noon Friday.
Many of them became loyal customers of Mama’s Cocina during the project. The restaurant is open 24 hours so some would drop in whenever they were on a break.
"From day one, I told them. Because they come in and support me every lunchtime. They come in to eat. A group. I said,’When you're finished, I promise a big party and free lunch for everybody," Mama’s manager Martha Vargas said.
Cox Media Group