Is it possible to turn a highway from something that pollutes noise, air and water into an environmental scrubber that pays for its own upkeep?
The organizers of an innovative project taking shape in West Georgia are just ambitious enough to try.
It started off with a conundrum, after a portion of I-85 in West Central Georgia was named for the late carpet mogul Ray C. Anderson.
His heirs were honored but a bit chagrined. How could a dirty road be the earthly embodiment of Anderson, an early pioneer for environmentally friendly business practices? Anderson’s daughter, Harriet Langford, wanted to do something to make the 16-mile highway segment between LaGrange and West Point more representative of its namesake. Hence, their project, which has become known as The Ray.
“A highway gets us from A to B, but it’s really dividing communities, it’s dividing ecosystems, and you can call a highway pretty dumb – it doesn’t do anything,” Langford said. “It’s very unsustainable.”
Initially, the plan was simple enough. Beautify the roadway, and help out butterflies and bees at the same time by planting milkweed and wildflowers.
But that kernel of an idea — to make the highway more “green” — has grown over the past year into a much larger, long-term vision. The mission now is to transform the highway into a model of green technology and innovation. Capitalizing upon government, corporate and philanthropic backing, a slate of projects are in development. Some of them are already advancing. Others may not be realized for years to come.
A baseline study produced by Georgia Tech showed numerous ways that The Ray could be used as a real-world laboratory for testing earth-friendly technologies.
The Ray C. Anderson Foundation is now considering:
- Taking advantage of the 200 acres of right-of-way on the roadside to farm biofuel plants like corn, canola or sunflowers.
- Installing attractive, translucent sound barriers that also function as solar panels.
- Repurposing toxic hog manure as a replacement for the binding agent in asphalt.
- Creating living billboards made of plant material that help purify the air.
- Building a wildlife crossing over or under the highway to help reduce animal fatalities.
The ultimate goal for the corridor is to use it as an example that can be replicated worldwide.
Getting corporate partners is key. That stretch of highway is a prime logistics corridor for numerous global companies like Coca-Cola, Kia, Walmart, Caterpillar, Kimberly Clark, UPS and Interface (the carpet tile manufacturing company that Anderson founded).
The Foundation is seeking whenever possible to partner with these companies, in addition to nonprofits like the Georgia Conservancy, government agencies like Georgia Department of Transportation and research institutions like Georgia Tech, said Allie Kelly, executive director of The Ray.
In October, Kia got the ball rolling. The company, which has its headquarters in West Point, sponsored the construction of a solar-powered electric vehicle charging station at a Visitor Information Center at Exit #2, just east of the Alabama state line. The charger is free to the public.
With 12 solar panels, it can restore 80 percent or more power to an electric vehicle in 30 to 45 minutes.
Columbus resident Chris Outlaw and a coworker stopped by to ogle it on a recent October afternoon.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Outlaw said as he walked up to inspect the station. “To have more along each stretch of the highway, where you could go a longer distance, would be an even better idea.”
The next project will be aimed at addressing stormwater runoff.
Right now, rain that falls on that stretch of I-85 washes all the antifreeze, brake dust, trash, oil and rubber particles right into Long Cane Creek. The creek, which flows into the Chattahoochee River, has a water quality rating of 60 out of 100 — near failing, Kelly said.
This fall, state transportation officials have agreed to let funding for planting wildflowers be used instead to plant five acres of native plants along The Ray. The plants will be allowed to grow up without being mowed. Those areas, called “bioswales,” will then serve as a natural filter for stormwater runoff.
Yet another project happening this fall is the landscaping of medians at both ends and near the midpoint of The Ray, at exits 2, 13 and 18. The plan calls for native plants to be used and some kind of “Ray Gates” — signage structure that lets drivers know they’re entering a special place. That project is funded by the foundation in partnership with the city of LaGrange, Troup County, Troup Alive & Green and Selig Enterprises.
LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said he thinks The Ray has the potential to attract more corporate investment in West Georgia and raise the area’s profile.
“If we demonstrate technology that can be replicated in other parts of the world, I think it will draw people to LaGrange to see them work,” Thornton said.