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Elle Hempen

Co-Founder of The Atlas. I’m big on cities, infrastructure, reducing inefficiency, helping urban innovators succeed & the Michigan Wolverines.

Created: Monday, January 28, 2019 | Updated: Monday, April 8, 2019

The Ray: turning highways into infrastructure technology testbeds

A number of our Atlas cities – from El Paso, to New Orleans and San Diego – are looking for ways to use municipally owned spaces as testbeds for innovative infrastructure technologies.  Doing so will not only help them understand how solutions work locally and support economic development, but it will also create space to engage residents around otherwise invisible infrastructure. That was why we were so excited when we discovered The Ray!

The Ray is a public-private-philanthropic partnership (do we call that a P4?) reimagining our highways. Since being founded in 2015, the demonstration site has grown to include a Wattway solar road, solar powered PV4EV charging stations, roll over tire pressure & tread depth monitors, and bioswales. Next up is a 1 megawatt ground mounted solar array – 5th installation nationwide, and the 1st in the state of Georgia! – which will provide shade for a recently planted pollinator garden.

We asked Allie Kelly, Executive Director of The Ray, a few questions to understand how they got to where they are today, what cities can learn from their experience, and where they are headed next! Check it out:

Tell us how The Ray came to be. Who was involved? How long did it take? And what role, if any, did public organizations play?

The Ray was an epiphany. After noted green industrialist, Ray C Anderson, passed away in 2011, his daughter Harriet Langford petitioned the Georgia Legislature to name a portion of the highway that went through his hometown in his honor. It wasn’t until after that wish was granted that Harriet realized that she had put her father’s name on a dirty, unsafe highway. Harriet got together with me, a longtime friend, and together we strategized over how to handle this problem. Could we plant wildflowers? Maybe a solar panel? A report by the Georgia Tech College of Design revealed that the possibilities were endless. It took about 18 months for Harriet and I to get through those early steps of commissioning that first report and then a follow up feasibility study done by Innovia.

Public organizations have played and continue to play a huge role in The Ray. You can’t transform a section of the interstate into a living laboratory without cooperation from the state Department of Transportation and all levels of government. We’ve been very intentional that this is a community effort, this isn’t a nonprofit foundation coming in and making changes. The Ray is about the opportunities and success of the community.

The Ray living lab is located on a stretch of the I-85 highway in Georgia.
The Ray living lab is located on a stretch of the I-85 highway in Georgia.

Any lessons you learned during the process that you wouldn’t want others to repeat if they set up a demonstration site like The Ray?

Luckily, there have been no major missed turns yet. We didn’t try to implement right out of the gate. We took time to figure out what we should be doing and the order it should happen. There wasn’t a blueprint to follow.

What we would suggest other demonstration sites do is bring their Department of Transportation along the whole way. The other thing that has been important is that we never felt an artificially limited timeline. We see our efforts continuing for decades so we never felt like we had to act impulsively or show instant impact. The transformation will happen overtime as the result of many different patterns. We’ve done a lot over the last year, especially for a small organization. We’ve been very transparent and open with people that we’re looking 30 years down the road.

You have been able to translate the startup mindset about failure into a public setting, how did you get Georgia Department of Transportation to buy in? Also, how did you deal with permitting? 

We mitigate risk for the Department of Transportation. Because of us, they don’t have to carry all the risk associated with innovation. We come in and spend the resources to curate the technology with their goals in mind and we bring the partners to the table. Then we bring it to the DOT and engineer it so that conforms to their standards. So our relationship has two important components. First, we accept the liability. And second, we never bring something outlandish to the table.

So far GDOT has been able to permit us under the existing permitting procedures. We have discussed that as a consequence of the transformational nature of The Ray, we may have to come up with new procedures to accommodate new technologies.


How did you build a relationship with Kia and other companies who sponsor the individual demonstration sites?

We just started early. As early as two to three months into The Ray’s conception, we started talking to local politicians, state DOT, etc. As soon as we started talking to those local leaders we simultaneously had parallel conversations with corporate companies. They were overall positive and openminded but not willing to invest. It’s just a process to building incremental progress and momentum. With Kia, those conversations aligned with their company goals and the release of their first electric vehicle. That being said, we give them lots of credit for being a first mover.

Love your motto, ‘don’t do anything that doesn’t do multiple things’ –  such a great lesson for modern infrastructure investment! What are the most exciting new technologies you’re seeing that you can’t wait to try out at The Ray?

One of the things we’re going to look at in the UK and the Netherlands next week is noise barriers made out of solar panels and solar concentrated materials. Why are sound barriers made of corrugated metal? Why not have those sound barriers be solar and serve multiple purposes? We’re looking forward to exploring that opportunity and possibly bringing it to The Ray.