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Maximizing Highway Infrastructure's Potential with GIS

In Georgia, The Ray is a smart highway corridor and test bed for technologies that can make the most of roadways. GIS is helping map underutilized resources to demonstrate the potential of existing infrastructure.

The Ray Solar Site
An exit off of Interstate 85 in Georgia was developed as a 1-megawatt solar installation. The site also serves as a pilot site to explore the planting of native wildflowers to encourage pollinators.
Courtesy/The Ray
Andrew Heath, state traffic engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), opens our conversation with an intriguing mix of futurism and pragmatism. His view of the power of GIS to transform his department’s work comes through loudly as he envisions a future where all GDOT assets, from guardrails to traffic lights to exit signs, are entered into a GIS-based asset management system.

Heath then refocuses on the critical opportunity to build a safer, more sustainable future. In his opinion, building a safer transportation system requires him to experiment with emerging technologies. His view of that future involves a much safer commute, where the state helps provide data in cars to drivers that, combined with connected vehicles, keep drivers safe and public safety personnel informed.

To achieve this grand vision, Heath understands that he must rethink optimal use of GDOT’s right-of-way assets. One challenge for his department is identifying and procuring the best viable new solutions, which of course often results in a cycle that takes so long that new solutions or iterations may have emerged by the time it is deployed. To address this issue, Heath needed some outside support.

In 2014, then-Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal dedicated a portion of Interstate 85 (I-85) in Troup County to Ray Anderson, the former CEO of carpet tile producer Interface, who was famous for his dedication to environmental sustainability. After the official dedication, Harriet Langford, Anderson’s daughter, had an unfortunate realization — her late father, once known as the “Greenest CEO in America,” now had his name on an 18-mile stretch of transportation infrastructure, a major contributor of CO2 emissions. She then dedicated herself to carrying on her father’s legacy. In 2015, she founded The Ray, a 501c(3) nonprofit committed to exploring new innovations that can advance sustainability, as well as public safety goals in transportation.

The Ray and the state started their work in 2015 with the very highway named after Langford’s father. Today, The Ray “is the premier living laboratory and testbed for transportation innovation” according to Laura Rogers, deputy director for The Ray. Rogers went on to highlight more than a dozen projects the organization has spearheaded along I-85 that “demonstrate how these roadsides, which are severely underutilized assets, can be put to greater use.”

The Ray works with GDOT to test new technologies and solutions in a live environment to maximize the potential of transportation infrastructure. One of the tools being explored to understand the untapped potential of highway infrastructure is GIS.

The Ray recently helped to develop a “right-of-way solar mapping tool” that assesses regulatory and environmental conditions in order to determine optimal locations to install solar arrays along the highway. This provides a comprehensive view of protected lands and habitats, as well as proximity to city centers, railroads, and energy transmission and distribution lines. The platform also has digital elevation and surface models that help to anticipate tree canopy coverage, the nature of the surface and elevation levels. It also includes digital twin capabilities to measure societal impacts of solar installation before a project reaches the planning stage of development. All of these layers are used to determine suitability for clean energy generation at different locations.

The same tool is also being used to identify solar energy generation opportunities. According to Allie Kelly, executive director for The Ray, this includes “solar canopies over parking lots, solar attached to parking decks or solar on rooftops.” She also highlighted opportunities for infrastructure to expand the electricity grid for clean energy generation opportunities.

Beyond that, Rogers intends to leverage the tool to understand where they can plant vegetation for carbon sequestration or address land erosion for stormwater management. Also, with significant farmlands along Georgia’s highways, she hopes to be able to conduct studies to determine where they can develop pollinator habitats to help agricultural farmers keep their crops alive and healthy.

With infrastructure spending increasing, local and state governments have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild America’s infrastructure for the better. Creative partnerships with third parties like The Ray, a willingness to try new technologies and a comprehensive spatial inventory will chart a path to the future.

Matt Leger, a research assistant for the Innovations in Government Program at the Ash Center, contributed to this column.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Data Smart City Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.
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