Driving Change

It’s not often that a highway can be labeled as a difference maker. But like many things under the legacy of Interface founder Ray Anderson, a stretch of road in Georgia is demonstrating how environmental positivity can transpire nearly anywhere.

The 16-mile section of I-85, a major U.S. Southeastern freeway that passes through the company’s hometown of LaGrange, Georgia, was renamed in Anderson’s honor in 2014. The Ray C. Anderson Foundation soon decided there was a greater purpose for “The Ray” than simply beautifying it with wildflowers. After all, the man it honors was known for his passionate commitment to sustainability.

“We’re asking how we can better design highways,” says Allie Kelly, The Ray’s executive director, “not just to be less degrading to the environment but to improve the environment, as well as safety, beauty, logistics and efficiency.”

As such, the Foundation plans to turn the negatives of highways into positives. It initiated a study with the Georgia Conservancy and Georgia Institute of Technology to investigate creating a zero-carbon, zero-casualty, zero-waste, zero-impact interstate.

Not surprisingly, the research revealed just how destructive highways are, and The Ray is no different. Along its stretch, vehicles emit 318 tons of exhaust each year, and water quality in the surrounding county has a poor rating. Add to that 70 decibels of sound pollution and 130 accidents involving deer each year.

We’re asking how we can better design highways, not just to be less degrading to the environment but to improve the environment, as well as safety, beauty, logistics and efficiency.

These sobering statistics serve as a baseline for measuring progress and also produced a wish list of projects and new technologies, including:

  • solar panels built into highways
  • asphalt that generates electricity as cars travel over
  • air-filtering plant walls to reduce highway emissions

Some improvements are already finished or underway. In October 2015, Georgia’s first solar-powered electric vehicle charging station opened at the Visitor Information Center near the Alabama border. The service is free and produces an 80% battery charge in less than 45 minutes. Kia Motors Manufacturing contributed to the project, which sets the stage for other large corporations in the area to help fund more innovations.

The Foundation and the Georgia Department of Transportation are now building bioswales (vegetated storm water run-off ditches) with native plant species to limit pollution and flooding. And by 2020, The Ray’s hoped-for advances will include wildlife conservation; climate modeling; renewable construction materials; more beautiful, efficient lighting and signage; and improved vehicle gas mileage and safety.

In short, this small stretch of highway has become a living lab that proves what’s possible for roadway ecosystems across the globe, perhaps one of the most unlikely places one expects to discover sustainability. Come along for the ride at theray.org.

Pictured below, left to right: Harriet and Phil Langford, Trustees, and Allie Kelly, Executive Director of The Ray.

Karen Paul Holmes Karen Paul Holmes is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and published poet.

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