ATLANTA - Atlanta area commuters crowded aboard mass transit trains and fewer cars hit the road Monday as public schools went on spring break, easing fears of fierce gridlock after last week's fiery collapse of a key interstate bridge.
Acknowledging the spike in train and bus riders, Georgia's governor pledged state financial assistance for agencies providing more frequent transit service and said he's seeking more federal aid for that same purpose.
Monday morning's rush hour traffic in the Southeast's largest city appeared lighter than usual as the first full workweek opened since Thursday's inferno cut off downtown Atlanta's key highway link to its northern suburbs.
But state officials warned that may not be the case when schools resume normal schedules. They urged private companies to allow employees to work from home and asked commuters to consider mass transit.
The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority reported a big rush hour jump in passengers on its northern rail lines Monday morning, up 50 to 73 percent as many commuters sought to avoid the highways altogether.
Friday saw traffic snarls and long delays as drivers sought to bypass the bridge collapse on side streets. Overall, fewer cars were on the road than on a typical Monday because all metro Atlanta public schools are out for spring break this week.
Motorist Randy Kessler said he left his home north of the city to drive downtown around 7 a.m., slightly earlier than usual. He said he didn't experience any major traffic heading south, but saw more traffic going north.
"This is going to help in the long run," said Kessler, a divorce lawyer. "It reminds me of the (1996) Olympics when people were terrified about driving downtown, but it was lightest traffic ever. It made people carpool more. I think Atlanta needed a little kick in the butt. We needed something to change our habits to make us rethink our daily commute."
Crews are working around the clock to remove scorched debris from the collapsed bridge. A portion of Interstate 85 remains closed as drivers are being redirected to alternate routes to bypass the wrecked bridge.
The closed section of I-85 is a key link to some of the city's biggest suburbs. It carries about 400,000 vehicles a day in a city where there are surprisingly few alternative routes for its size.
Officials pledged after the collapse of the 350-foot section of Interstate 85 that a replacement bridge would be built as soon as possible, but that could take months.
On Monday, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal promised financial help from the state to transit agencies seeing increased ridership and released a letter seeking more financial aid dedicated to transit agencies from the federal government.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao last week released $10 million for the initial repair work, and the Federal Highway Administration promised more in emergency repair funds.
Deal also requested Monday that federal authorities waive various regulations and potentially lower the cost of repairs. The state also hopes to use financial incentives for private contractors and state employees to speed up completion.
In the meantime, Deal said state employees are being urged to work from home or use transit to reach government buildings clustered downtown. He urged private companies to follow the state's lead.
Authorities said the fire was started by a man who had talked about smoking crack prior to the fire that broke out under the bridge in an area north of downtown Atlanta where the state of Georgia stores noncombustible construction materials. The blaze grew quickly, with smoke billowing high above the city's skyline before the bridge collapsed. Firefighters had already scrambled to safety, and no one was hurt.
Basil Eleby was charged with first-degree arson and first-degree property damage. He remains in jail on a $200,000 bond. Two other people with him were charged with criminal trespass, authorities said.
Georgia Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry said Monday that his agency will evaluate "all things" connected to the fire, including storage locations of construction materials.
"We certainly will be looking at all things to make sure that we never have a catastrophic event like this again," McMurry said.
McMurry said investigators in Eleby's case and with the National Transportation Safety Board have requested that crews preserve some evidence from the site. He didn't provide details.