Last week, Interstate 16 (I-16) was closed in both directions between Exit 71 and Exit 78 following extensive damage to an overpass in Treutlen County. Early on the morning of July 15, a large dump trailer crashed into that bridge over the highway, creating a danger when the bridge deck shifted off its supports by 6 feet over the interstate below, the GDOT said in a news release.

The interstate could not be reopened between the two exits mentioned above until the entire bridge deck was removed, highway officials said. It was originally forecast by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) that the westbound lanes of the interstate would open on the morning of Sunday, July 18 and the eastbound lanes would be opened sometime on July 19. However, the westbound lanes were opened on Friday, July 16, and the eastbound lanes were opened on Saturday, July 17. GDOT District Engineer Corbett Reynolds made the announcement of the re-openings. 

The damage to the overpass is easily seen. (Photo: Georgia Department of Transportation)

GDOT engineers determined that demolishing the overpass “will be the fastest way to reopen I-16,” GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry said on July 16. “We already have crews out there, underway, preparing for this demolition, and mobilization of specialized demolition equipment is in route and will begin demolition this evening.”

Reopening the westbound lane from Savannah to Macon was the GDOT’s priority, according to McMurray. A key reason for that was the freight flow from the Port of Savannah into middle Georgia and metro Atlanta. 

Highway description and route

Interstate 16 is another intrastate interstate (as are I-2, I-4, I-12 and I-14). I-16 is an east-west highway located entirely within the state of Georgia. Simply put, the highway joins Macon and Savannah. However, a key purpose of I-16 is to link I-75 with the Port of Savannah to aid in the movement of goods. In addition, I-16 connects with Interstate 95 at Pooler; this provides part of a high-speed route from Atlanta to the Golden Isles and Jacksonville, Florida.

A map showing the route of I-16 from Macon to Savannah. (Image: GA-404)

Since 2003, I-16 has also been known as the Jim Gillis Historic Savannah Parkway. Gillis served as the Director of the Georgia Highway Board for much of the 1950s and 1960s, helping to create the state’s modern road system. 

I-16 begins at a directional-T interchange with I-75 at the Ocmulgee River northwest of downtown Macon. The westernmost segment of I-16 (from I-75 and US 80/SR 87), is part of the Fall Line Freeway, a highway that connects the Georgia cities of Columbus and Augusta. This segment may also be incorporated into the proposed eastern extension of I-14, which is currently entirely within central Texas but may be extended through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia to Augusta.

The interchange of I-75 and I-16 west of Macon, Georgia. (Photo: Georgia Department of Transportation)

The exchange joining I-16’s west end with I-75 dates to 1962. Construction to upgrade it to a systems interchange began in 2016 and extends to 2024. The six-phase project was first proposed in the early 1980s; preliminary engineering dates to 1998. Nearly $400 million in construction costs will rebuild and upgrade the exchange to handle the greatly increased traffic volume.

Heading southeast, I-16 serves commuters to U.S. 129 and U.S. 23/80 before leaving the Macon urban area. Beyond Macon, I-16 travels a rural course south and east across forested hills and agricultural fields. Running eastward, I-16 reaches the outskirts of Dublin, the largest city between Macon and Savannah, before crossing the Oconee River.

East from the river, I-16 winds through more forest land. Closer to Savannah there are increasing areas of wetlands. Savannah’s suburban expansion adds commuter traffic to I-16 from the Bloomingdale and Pooler areas to the cloverleaf interchange with I-95. Because of congestion during Savannah’s rush hours and many deadly car accidents, a major construction project that began in mid-2019 is rebuilding this exchange. The I-16/I-95 Improvement Project is also widening I-16 to six lanes.

Beyond I-95, I-16 reaches the city limits of Savannah, passing industrial areas to I-516, an urban spur between Garden City, Hunter Army Airfield and midtown Savannah. U.S. 17 combines with I-16 beyond I-516 as the freeway runs east toward Savannah’s historic downtown area. U.S. 17/SR 404 Spur branch north from I-16 to Hutchinson Island and the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge spanning the Savannah River.

I-16 contraflow explanation. (Photo: Georgia Department of Transportation)

Hurricane evacuation route

I-16 serves as a hurricane evacuation route for Savannah and Georgia’s other coastal areas. It can handle contraflow travel with railroad crossing-style gates to block most entrance and exit ramps for the normally eastbound lanes. During hurricane evacuation, I-16 is converted into westbound traffic from Savannah to west of US 441 in Dublin (exit 51), a total of 125 miles.

In 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit Georgia’s coast. The eastbound I-16 lanes from Savannah to US 1 (exit 90) were opened to westbound traffic; this was the first time I-16 was used as a one-way interstate. This contraflow traffic method has been used since, including evacuation efforts in 2016 from Hurricane Matthew and in 2017 for Hurricane Irma. 

The Port of Savannah’s 30 cranes work seven vessels simultaneously along Garden City Terminal’s 10,000-foot dock.
(Photo: Georgia Ports Authority/Jeremy Polston)

Improvements spur state revenue

Compared to the routes of many interstates, I-16 follows a fairly straight and flat path from Macon to Savannah. As noted earlier, a key function of the highway is to serve commerce, particularly moving goods to and from Georgia’s ports. This is one of the reasons the decision to demolish the overpass (instead of making repairs) was made last week; the cost/benefit analysis determined that demolition would save money in the end. 

According to GDOT, the expansion/improvement of I-16 at its interchanges with I-75, I-95 and I-516 is estimated to increase the Georgia gross state product (GSP) by $9.1 billion at a cost of $1.95 billion. In addition, estimates are that employment will increase annually by nearly 2,500.