Gridlock Guy: Big radius of delays from epic hours-long I-85 closure

Most traffic incidents come and go with the wind, each important in their time but then quickly fading into a soup of ephemera. A rare few stand out and cause people to actually remember where they were then or how that problem impacted them. Thousands of Gwinnett motorists may not remember the date - March 22nd, 2022 - years from now. But they certainly won’t forget being stuck in the four-and-a-half-hour closure of I-85 both ways at Indian Trail Road or in the ramifications thereof.

Gwinnett PD says 23-year old Jaylin Backman got into an argument with a passenger on a Greyhound bus and then pointed a handgun at the bus’ driver when they pulled over on the Indian Trail Road ramp to I-85/northbound to ask what was going on. At that point, with 31 other passengers and any surrounding vehicles in danger, the bus driver called the police and a normal Tuesday took a dramatic turn.

As the other passengers found ways to jump off of the bus, the mentally-distressed Backman remained onboard and in a standoff with police negotiators. Since Backman was armed, upset, and unpredictable, Gwinnett PD worked with Norcross PD, DeKalb PD, and Georgia DOT to shut down I-85 in both directions and part of Indian Trail, too. A traffic nightmare unfolded.


WSB Triple Team Traffic’s midday anchor, Veronica Harrell, immediately got calls from passers by - our Traffic Troopers - and she soon was leading newscasts and breaking into normal programming with timely updates on 95.5 FM. Ch. 2 Action News also scheduled Harrell for special traffic reports in their noon newscast.

A closure of this magnitude means first alerts of utmost importance. Harrell got push alerts out immediately on our Triple Team Traffic Alerts App and WSB Radio App. Those running the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App on their phones heard Harrell’s warnings when they drove in a 10-mile radius of the closure. There wasn’t any excuse for people just driving right into this mess.

The various departments initiated a good traffic plan, forcing I-85/southbound traffic onto Beaver Ruin Road (Exit 102) and I-85/northbound onto Jimmy Carter Boulevard (Exit 99). That shouldn’t be taken for granted, as we have seen many extended closures where law enforcement don’t bother to do this and just let people drive right into a backup.

Good plans or not, closing 12 lanes of I-85 from around 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. inevitably would cause shockwaves of delays through Gwinnett and even DeKalb counties. I-85 immediately began crawling up from I-285, which then jammed up the I-285 ramps to I-85/northbound. I-85/southbound was gridlocked from before Highway 316, which then snarled Highway 316/westbound.

The immediate thought when I-85 jams in Norcross is to take Buford Highway - that route went from gravy to molasses quickly. Peachtree Industrial soon followed in slow suit. Lawrenceville Highway then took on big delays both ways between Lilburn and Norcross.

A traffic problem’s intensity is truly measured when a driver needs alternates to the alternates.

As the closure prolonged, WSB AM airborne anchor Smilin’ Mark McKay joined Harrell in radio reports and began directing people to an even wider berth, suggesting people take GA-400 to either Holcomb Bridge Road/Highway 140 in Norcross or to Old Milton Parkway/Highway 120 to Duluth. He also sent people destined for the eastern half of Gwinnett to take Highway 78. Eventually, the signature of the delays showed up on those routes, too.

Jams on I-85/northbound got so intense, that DeKalb PD began channeling traffic onto I-285. However, the I-285 ramps to I-85/northbound remained open and that traffic inched up to the Jimmy Carter exit.

When delays are this bad, drivers should just simply give up driving through that region, if possible. In this case, just like any other, too many people inevitably shrugged their shoulders and just decided to go for it through Gwinnett. Of course, that only made the problem worse.

Thankfully, no one got hurt in this standoff. The SWAT team eventually threw a flash bang on the bus to end the stalemate and take Backman into custody. Police are charging Backman with aggravated assault. They began pacing and slowly opening traffic around 2 p.m. Traffic took at least an hour to return to normal - just in time for the PM commute.

Closing an entire interstate both ways for hours just doesn’t happen often. And when it does, the effects are felt for miles away on all major roads nearby. This latest epic shutdown on I-85 should be yet another reminder of how unpredictable and consequential Atlanta traffic is and how motorists can’t just drive blindly and expect to get by unscathed.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.





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