- Associated Press - Friday, April 7, 2017

ATLANTA (AP) - Atlanta’s mayor warned motorists to prepare for longer travel times Monday as schools return from spring break and a key stretch of interstate remains closed.

Many Atlanta area schools were on break this week, temporarily easing fears of fierce gridlock because of a stretch of Interstate 85 collapsing March 30 after a large fire. But Mayor Kasim Reed said Friday that models predict a 30 percent increase in travel times on Monday as schools resume normal schedules.

“Monday is not going to be business as usual,” Reed said.

The man accused of starting the fire under the bridge in an area north of downtown Atlanta was indicted Friday by a grand jury.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard Jr.’s office said in a statement that the indictment charges Basil Eleby, 39, with first-degree arson and first degree property damage. Eleby had been arrested on the same charges and jailed on a $200,000 bond.

Howard’s office says Eleby faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison if he’s convicted of the charges.

Authorities say Eleby had talked about smoking crack prior to the fire breaking out. Eleby’s attorney, Liz Markowitz, has said her client is being used as a scapegoat.

The collapse forced the closure of a portion of the interstate, which 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 few alternative routes. State transportation officials aim to reopen the area to traffic by mid-June.

Reed urged companies to consider letting employees work from home or change their schedules to avoid rush-hour traffic, particularly this week as commuters adjust. Those who must drive should have a full tank of gas before leaving, Reed said, but he encouraged people to use transit systems instead.

The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, known as MARTA, plans to offer increased service and also will position staff and volunteers to help first-time customers at rail stations. The system already has seen a 20 percent increase in ridership since the bridge collapse.

“MARTA employees and volunteers have pulled together to ensure our current and new customers have a great experience with us and are informed of the best way to navigate our system,” MARTA CEO Keith Parker said. “We are committed to delivering routine excellence for the long haul and we see this as an opportunity to earn everyday customers.”

Schools also have announced plans to cope with increased congestion. Atlanta Public Schools announced Thursday that students on the city’s north side should be at bus stops 15 minutes early. Buses will be stocked with bottled water in case of any long traffic jams.

Schools in that area also will open their doors 15 minutes earlier than normal for the rest of the year, lengthening parents’ drop-off period.

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