Data-Smart City Pod

The Highway of the Future is in Georgia

Episode Summary

Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews The Ray's Allie Kelly and Georgia DOT's Andrew Heath about transforming a stretch of Interstate-85 into a living laboratory for transportation innovation.

Episode Notes

In this episode Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews Allie Kelly, the Executive Director of transportation and sustainability nonprofit The Ray and Andrew Heath, Deputy Chief Engineer of Georgia's Department of Transportation about their work incorporating emerging technologies along I-85. The highway of the future will be connected and data-rich, and thanks to this partnership the state can employ important environmental and safety improvements that have been conceptualized, researched, and tested by The Ray.

This partnership highlights the importance of cross-sector collaboration, data-informed transportation decisions, and innovative infrastructure. 

Music credit: Summer-Man by Ketsa

About Data-Smart City Solutions

Data-Smart City Solutions, housed at the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School, is working to catalyze the adoption of data projects on the local government level by serving as a central resource for cities interested in this emerging field. We highlight best practices, top innovators, and promising case studies while also connecting leading industry, academic, and government officials. Our research focus is the intersection of government and data, ranging from open data and predictive analytics to civic engagement technology. We seek to promote the combination of integrated, cross-agency data with community data to better discover and preemptively address civic problems. To learn more visit us online and follow us on Twitter

Episode Transcription

Betsy Gardner: Hi, this is Betsy Gardner, senior editor at the Harvard Kennedy School and producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Since we started this podcast, we've had great support from our listeners. And to make sure that you don't miss an episode, please find us under the new Data-Smart City Pod channel, wherever you listen. Make sure to subscribe so you get each episode. And thanks for listening.

Stephen Goldsmith: Welcome back. This is Stephen Goldsmith, professor of urban policy at Harvard's Kennedy School for another one of our podcasts. This is an interesting one today because of the subject and because we have two talented individuals to talk to us a little bit up the use of data and technology to innovate on behalf of residents of the state of Georgia and the area around Atlanta as well. With me today are two great individuals, Andrew Heath, who's the deputy chief engineer for Georgia DOT and Allie Kelly, who is the executive director of a nonprofit called The Ray, who are here to talk about their partnership. Welcome to both of you.

Allie Kelly: Thank you, Steve.

Andrew Heath: Thank you.

Stephen Goldsmith: So Andrew, let's just start with a little bit, so our listeners know who they're listening to, a minute or two about your background and your job. And then over to Allie for the same thing, please.

Andrew Heath: Yeah. Thanks Steve. Again, I'm Andrew Heath with the Georgia Department of Transportation, been working with the state of Georgia for about 15 years now. Really over the last eight years, my focus has been on the operations side of the department, trying to understand how the state of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Transportation can get the most bang for its buck out of the transportation system. Try to maximize our operations from both a mobility and safety perspective. And frankly, how can we introduce and take advantage of new technologies that are coming into the transportation space to again, really get the most out of the network that we possibly can. So that's really been the focus of my career here over the last decade or so.

Stephen Goldsmith: Good. Thanks Andrew. Allie, what is The Ray? Who are you? And what's the nature of your relationship with Georgia DOT?

Allie Kelly: Sure. Well, thank you so much for having me and allowing me to talk about The Ray. As you describe the Ray is a public charity, we're a 501(C)(3) organization. We're headquartered in Atlanta and in LaGrange, Georgia. And our mission is in transportation to go zero carbon, zero deaths, and zero waste. That mission is informed by and is an extension of the legacy of Ray Anderson who achieved zero carbon and zero waste in his carpet tile company. Ray was a LaGrange and West Point native. And so that is why our work is focused down in LaGrange and West Point on the Western front of the state of Georgia.

We believe that the technology already exists for this mission to be accomplished in transportation. And our goal as a nonprofit is to utilize and leverage philanthropy, to help DOTs like GDOT and Andrew to try new things. Frankly, particularly on interstates and highways, it's hard to try new things. It's hard to try new technologies, the risks are high. And so The Ray steps in with philanthropy to try to mitigate those risks and make the projects possible. We've developed an 18 mile corridor of Interstate 85 as really the nation's premier test bed for sustainable, safe, and smart interstate infrastructure. And we're now scaling these projects to 15 states, working with more than two dozen transportation agencies.

Stephen Goldsmith: Terrific. Andrew, I talked to Allie before and you of course, and thought a little bit about the fact that cities and states sit on a lot of assets that could be optimized, or utilized, or leveraged. And those physical assets are in a place, so they're spatially organized, but once you understand where they are, perhaps they can be used for other purposes as well. Talk to us a little bit about GIS, The Ray and your partnership to identify opportunities on the corridor that Allie mentioned, please.

Andrew Heath: Yeah, Steve. Thanks. And just to kind of illustrate that point, in the state of Georgia, the Georgia Department of Transportation owns, operates, and maintains over 18,000 Centerline miles of right of way. That's a lot of land when you think at it, just from the broadest perspective. And traditionally as with all DOTs, we've used that for roads, sidewalks, you name it to move people and goods across the state of Georgia from a true transportation perspective. But with the advent of new technologies and the power of tools like GIS, it's created a new avenue or a new path for DOTs to explore to one, understand what we have on our roadway system, what's actually out there. What is the condition of our assets? How are we managing and maintaining our assets? But then two, how can we potentially repurpose some of our assets to move into new pathways, whether it's from a safety perspective or a sustainability perspective, or even something like charging for electric vehicles or solar energy opportunities, things of that nature.

And that's where the partnership with The Ray and with Allie has really kind of come to the forefront for the DOT, is beginning to explore some of those avenues. So when we look at our 18,000 Centerline miles a right of way, how can we hope to leverage that or try to understand how we can leverage that to pursue those new potentials from an energy, from a mobility, from a safety perspective? And I think you mentioned, see sort of the power of a tool like GIS not only from a illustrative perspective, to just understand where is everything and how can I easily understand that as a department and as an end user, but also then managing it holistically from a budgetary perspective, from a performance perspective. And then trying to carve out certain areas or certain opportunities to introduce new things, right? So that's where we see that potential of this technology coming to play for a DOT. And Allie and The Ray with their work have really kind of helped us explore that, those potentials, particularly in the sustainability and energy perspective.

Stephen Goldsmith: That's great. Allie, so if you think about Andrew's response, I mean, he needs a lot of help, right? He needs procurement health. He needs suggestions about new innovation. He needs a partner who will take some of the risk because he is a state employee and has to be prudent with state resources and the like. So how do you think, and this story about GIS is interesting one, because you both are fluent in GIS technologies, but how do you think about identifying innovations and the role you play in helping the state of Georgia?

Allie Kelly: Yeah. I can talk about this specifically in the context of GIS. So The Ray highway hosts a megawatt solar power plant on the FHWA Georgia DOT right of way at exit 14, which is a traditional diamond interchange. One quadrant or one triangle of that diamond interchange has been converted into a Georgia power energy facility. 2,600 high efficiency solar panels are generating clean energy from that five acre parcel and it is grid connected. So the sale of that energy is ongoing with Georgia Power's customers. Georgia was the third state in the country to utilize the right of way for clean energy generation. And the site was commercialized in February of 2020. The successful completion of this project has led to a lot of really great things happening in transportation. First and foremost, the Federal Highways Administration in April of this year issued guidance indicating for the first time that alternative uses of the right of way of the interstate system are just as important or just as high priority as the transportation use, which is the traditional use.

And specifically they indicated that clean energy generation from solar and wind facilities, as well as transmission and distribution buried are operational uses for the rights of way that meet the safety and efficiency criteria, but that also address issues that are existential, the climate crisis and even digital poverty because you can bury resilient fiber alongside the transmission and distribution infrastructure. So think of it as a layer cake, right? We've got energy generation and maybe EV charging assets at ground level and then below ground buried our co-located fiber and HBDC or HVAC transmission. We're pursuing all of these projects from a planning perspective, but we've already built the solar project. And as a result of the successful completion of the solar project, not only did the Federal Highways Administration come out with this historic guidance, but also The Ray found itself in a partnership with Esri to develop a solar mapping tool that helps to accelerate state DOTs acceptance and planning activities to onboard clean energy generation as quickly as possible onto the interstate rights of way.

A lot of the state partnering that we're doing right now is utilizing Esri's ArcGIS tool to evaluate real roadside parcels using the DOT's own data sets. For solar suitability, we can analyze solar radiation based on local factors. We can evaluate for a digital surface model and a digital elevation model. We can rank the top 10, 20, or 50 sites. And they also included a digital twin element to the technology that allows transportation engineers to actually lay out a solar site and get into the solar site as an avatar and look around. So transportation engineers become more familiar with renewable energy infrastructure and what it means for the asset.

Stephen Goldsmith: That was quite an answer.

Allie Kelly: I'm here to please.

Stephen Goldsmith: So that was a lot of stuff, Andrew. I think Allie's making your job too easy. That's what I took away from that.

Andrew Heath: That might be true. But if I can kind of quickly go back Steve, to your point of how The Ray has helped the department. You mentioned procurement, but it's not just procurement it's policy and it's statute and law. There are a lot of challenges, a lot of barriers and a lot of hurdles that have to be overcome to implement this type of technology or implement this new use to federal rights of way. And that's been one of the primary benefits of the relationship between the department and The Ray is to work together to navigate those issues.

Andrew Heath: I can say very quickly that without Allie and The Ray's help, we wouldn't be looking at that five megawatt deployment down in LaGrange. I mean, it just wouldn't be there. And not only that, we probably wouldn't see some of the successes we've seen at the federal level in terms of introducing flexibility to allow the proliferation of some of these uses on rights of way. So that partnership and that assistance that The Ray has provided is broad and has led to successful pilots, successful trials, sure. But also the development of a path that others can follow, not just in Georgia, but really across the country. So yeah, Allie does a great job. She does help us in our job from a day to day basis that's for sure.

Stephen Goldsmith: Well, I did exaggerate just a bit, not in terms of her contribution, but in terms of your contribution. So I'm going to give Allie a chance to close, but Andrew, let me ask you a question and then we'll let Allie close up. So this is all great, but there's a lot of money kind of coming down the funnel for infrastructure and traditionally highway engineers haven't thought so much about digital infrastructure. They thought about concrete and pavement and other infrastructure. And if we're going to prepare for the future, one of the things that this conversation shows is that if we have access to data, we can make better decisions, we can make them in a dynamic way. So how would you think about encouraging the future proofing of your infrastructure through more digital infrastructure? How are you going to write the RPs? How are you going to attract innovation? Because you're going to be pretty busy just spending the money for concrete. So how do we think about your incorporating these other tools?

Andrew Heath: Well, that's a great question. And I personally believe that the transportation industry is standing at an inflection point with the introduction of new technology, both from a connected perspective and how information can help inform transportation, but also an automated perspective. And how we can begin to introduce and explore and proliferate autonomous vehicles and autonomous technology on our transportation network. We are standing at that point right now and as state DOTs, we need to take a look at what is our highest level mission as a DOT? It's to provide a safe and mobile transportation network in Georgia and across the country, right?

We want to get people and goods to home, to work, to play and to do so in a safe manner. And the best way to do that is to explore, implement, and deploy both connectivity, using data and information to inform what's going on and to work towards automation to reduce serious injury and fatality crashes. So then it becomes just to me, critical that DOTs walk that path to understand how do we then inform the proliferation of those technologies through the use of data, because that's where the crux of that whole discussion is, getting data in, getting data out, informing connectivity, informing automation, and working together to those things. That's what's going to lead to that safe and mobile future that we're working towards.

Stephen Goldsmith: Andrew, Georgia is lucky to have you. You got a great attitude about the role of innovation in public service. It's really, really, quite…seriously rewarding to hear it. Allie, last comments about how you are going to further the deployment of not just on the highway you adopted, but innovation across several DOTs. What do you see is the future for digital infrastructure in advancing sustainability and equity?

Allie Kelly: Yeah, I mean, we've talked about how GIS can be leveraged for opportunistic infrastructure, right? I mean, we're talking about the opportunity for transportation assets, like the right of way to host clean energy infrastructure, whether it's energy generation, energy transmission, or energy distribution, as well as telecom. There's another opportunity which is not opportunistic. The state DOTs like Georgia are going to be receiving hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars to support the disruptive transition of transportation fueling from liquid to electrons. And so what we're doing at The Ray with partners at Geotab, which they control millions of telematics on heavy duty trucks. So we're actually using real truck travel trends across the country. We're heat mapping where the trucks start, where they're stopping, and for how long, all along their trip to their final destination. And we're doing this by the millions. Our two pilot routes extend from Dallas to Atlanta and then from Atlanta to Savannah.

And here's the point. We can use these heat maps from a telematics partner, like Geotab to drive the data to make the infrastructure investments around EV charging. And particular, as we talk about medium and heavy duty vehicles, the infrastructure is so expensive right now, you're talking about half million dollars for a single high powered charger, right? $500,000 for a single megawatt charger. So with that level of investment, we need to be making data driven investments and data driven decisions to set this infrastructure up for as much success as possible.

We have to put this infrastructure in the way of frequency of use. And that is what the data from connected trucks can give us in the mapping world. And we can actually, this is going to blow your mind Stephen, we can layer the Geotab heat map into the Esri right of way database and we know where we should install solar, where we should install T&D in order to support high powered charging, to serve vehicles like class A trucks, where they're stopping, where we know they're stopping. And it's all data driven, utilizing geospatial mapping technologies and connected vehicle technologies. This is where strategy meets the technology to produce the best outcomes in infrastructure.

Stephen Goldsmith: That was quite an answer. I want to close up, but I also want to make sure I understood what you just said because it was so significant. So there-

Allie Kelly: It's amazing, right? It's telematics. Its real data from the trucks saying, here I am, here I've stopped for 30 minutes or for three hours.

Stephen Goldsmith: So you're working on a relationship between Geotab and Esri where Esri layers maps-

Allie Kelly: They're already partnered. Geotab and Esri are already partners. And so we can take the heat maps that Geotab is creating and we can pull them into as a layer, into our Esri database, into our Esri mapping tool. And now we know where the right of way opportunistic converges with where the infrastructure should go to electrify trucking. And we know what T&D, what solar we need and whatever combination to support. Can you imagine megawatt charging? We've got to have multiple chargers. They'll be operational at the same time sometimes. So we're not just talking sequential, we're talking simultaneous massive power draw. And we need to know what energy infrastructure needs to support the infrastructure, where the infrastructure should go to be set up for success. It is really awesome alignment and I'm going to use the word synergy. I don't care. I'm going to use it. Synergistic.

Stephen Goldsmith: Well, this is very exciting. We could take this 20 minute podcast up to a couple hours, but probably that's not fair to either of you. It's really fascinating what the state of Georgia and The Ray have accomplished, kind of breakthroughs and information in the last couple answers between the two of you and our audience about how to use data to really transform physical infrastructure. It's a great conversation with Andrew Heath and Allie Kelly. Thank you so much for your time today. We are adjourned.

Andrew Heath: Thank you so much.

Betsy Gardner: If you like this podcast, please visit us at or follow us @datasmartcities on Twitter. And remember to subscribe at the new Data-Smart City Pod channel on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. This podcast was produced by me, Betsy Gardner and hosted by professor Steve Goldsmith. We're proud to be this central resource for cities interested in the intersection of government, data, and innovation. Thanks for listening.