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Tomorrow’s infrastructure, today

Harriet Langford
President & Founder of The Ray

If the phrase “highway infrastructure” doesn’t excite you and bring to mind high-tech innovations, it should. I’ll tell you why. 

Our highway system is the backbone of America. Highways connect our cities. They allow us to visit relatives, live and work in separate places and take that family vacation. But, it’s also a place where 40,000 American lives are lost every year, and it’s the part of our transportation system that contributes an outsized proportion of carbon pollution to our environment. Those are big problems, but the good news is, there are big solutions. Many of those solutions are being tested in your backyard on a stretch of I-85 called The Ray.

So, what is The Ray? The Ray is an 18-mile corridor of Interstate 85 running from the Alabama border up to LaGrange. That stretch of highway is a living laboratory for the technology and innovations that will make driving safer and more sustainable. If you stop at the Georgia Visitor Information Center off Exit 1, you’ll see first-in-the-U.S. technology like our solar road, Wattway. Wattway is the only publicly available, drivable solar road in the world outside of France, where the technology was developed. Speaking of solar energy, electric vehicles can plug into a fast charging station at the center, free of charge, powered by solar energy. On your way back to the highway, don’t forget to drive through our tire-safety station, WheelRight. Without ever leaving your car, drive-over sensors will report your tire pressure and tread depth in a matter of seconds. This innovation matters because under-inflated tire blow-outs cause dangerous and often fatal accidents. Additionally, improper inflation is bad for your fuel economy, leading to more trips to the gas pump.

On the road itself, you’re going to see some construction start up later this year. We’re transforming how we think about all that land around the highway, including the grassy medians and shoulders (called the right-of-way), and it starts with a one-megawatt solar farm in the diamond interchange at Exit 14. As demand for renewable energy increases, so will competition for available land. But renewables don’t have to compete with neighboring agriculture — there are acres and acres of Georgia Department of Transportation owned right-of-way that is unsuitable for crops. We want to use it to produce local energy for our local community. And we want to surround these new solar farms with pollinator plants that will provide much needed habitat for endangered bees and butterflies that are critical to the success of our agriculture economy and food supply.

Those solutions aren’t coming down from the federal government, but from the ground up through what is called the P4: public, private, philanthropic partnerships. The Ray is a nonprofit organization at the heart of each project, but it only gets off the ground through the leadership and support of the Georgia Departments of Transportation and Economic Development, as well as the local governments of Troup County and the City of LaGrange. Funding is often supported by any of the many private companies and manufacturers located along the LaGrange Business Corridor. These companies, like KIA Motors Manufacturing of Georgia, see a strategic importance in infrastructure investments right here in their communities, and we can’t discount the multitude of like-minded nonprofits who team up to support and collaborate on projects, like the Chattahoochee Nature Center or our public universities.

This week is Infrastructure Week, and The Ray is proud to participate with over 300 organizations around the country. Our message is simple, the time to build, the time to invest, the time to innovate and improve is now. We don’t need to wait on a massive spending bill from the federal government. We have all the tools we need right here. When it comes to taking care of our environment and the lives of the ones we love, we can’t wait another day.