Until recently, there were no sidewalks. The country road fronting their homes was too treacherous for neighbors to mingle outside, let alone host a sale on their front yards. Children had to ride the bus to a school a couple of blocks up the hill. Residents drove to make a run to the town’s general store, since the short walk was too dangerous.
More painful, said many who live amid a rise in fast-moving commuter traffic: It became difficult to preserve their neighborly spirit. “We were losing our sense of community,” said Amy Marasco, who is the town’s vice mayor. “You couldn’t go across the street to your neighbor, because cars were flying through.”
In the heart of Virginia’s wine country, Hillsboro was transformed into a walkable town during the coronavirus pandemic. Its 0.7-mile stretch of Route 9 — a thoroughfare that carries 17,000 vehicles each day — was redesigned to emphasize the needs of the town rather than the commuters passing through.
The two-lane road with slim shoulders was shuttered for months at a time during the pandemic lull, reopening this spring with stone sidewalks, raised crosswalks, curbside parking and a roundabout on each side of town. While lawmakers on Capitol Hill debate the nation’s infrastructure needs — and projects across the country await an infusion of federal money — this small town 50 miles outside of Washington is reaping the benefits of a multimillion-dollar boost.
“Isn’t this amazing?” Hillsboro Mayor Roger L. Vance asked as he mingled with residents at the sidewalk sale, reflecting on the changes. “I can guarantee you nobody had ever walked from one end of the town to the other,” he said. “There was literally no place to walk except right on the shoulder.”
A case study in rural success
Town leaders marvel at how Hillsboro — population 120 — secured the $34 million, a mammoth financial windfall for a town with an annual operating budget of less than $200,000. The project, the culmination of a nearly two-decade campaign, not only rebuilt Hillsboro’s main street but also modernized other aging infrastructure.
Crews installed a town-owned conduit to deliver fiber for broadband, moved overhead utilities underground and built a better storm water system. A new drinking water system was connected to a new water source, ending a 25-year boiling water notice.
Meanwhile, pipes were installed to transition homeowners from septic tanks to a municipal wastewater system, eliminating risks of septic failure that could be environmentally and financially catastrophic.
Town leaders secured the equivalent of about $280,000 in improvements for each resident in town.
Vance and Marasco, elected every two years to serve in unpaid roles, submitted more than 30 applications for grants, a process that included rejections from multiple federal programs. For years, the pair showed up at regional and state transportation meetings and conferences, pleading for help.
“There was a public meeting, and I looked up and there was Roger and Amy,” recalls Monica Backmon, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which approved $12.1 million for the project in 2018. “They were everywhere.”
When the transportation authority held a hearing to consider the funding, Hillsboro residents traveled in a bus to show up to testify. “They brought out half the town,” Backmon said.
Hillsboro, she said, made the case that an investment in town infrastructure was an investment in the region. The authority’s analysis confirmed the need to alleviate a heavy stream of traffic on Route 9, which slices through Hillsboro as it winds from Charles Town, W.Va., 12 miles to the west, nearly to Leesburg, 12 miles to the east.
The town saved millions of dollars by having Vance and Marasco take the role of project managers, and by combining multiple infrastructure projects into one. That strategy also helped the town secure money from various sources, including health grants for the drinking and wastewater projects, while only tearing up the road once for improvements that included multiple projects.
Loudoun County allocated nearly $19 million. A $1.5 million federal highway grant awarded in 2003 was used for the early study and design.
“It’s very challenging to try to come up with funds to fix the road problems on your own,” Backmon said. “But I have to credit the town for really doing the work. They’ve been putting in the work for years and years, really trying to get some help.”
Hillsboro’s success is a case study in how a rural area can take matters into its own hands, experts say.
It can be difficult for small towns to provide financial matches for federal grants or to dedicate resources to formulate complex grant applications. It can also be hard to justify traffic-calming measures. Communities are often at the mercy of state or regional agencies that control funding.
Across the nation, many rural communities lack safe infrastructure to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists. Experts say more investment could save lives because fatality rates on rural roads are two times higher than on urban roads, according to federal data.
“There’s a huge exposure to risk [by] walking in these places because they’re rarely designed for people to walk,” said Steve Davis, spokesman for Smart Growth America, a nonprofit that tracks road safety trends. Hillsboro, he said, shows how a small town can make design improvements with safety in mind.
As lawmakers debate the future of the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes and Internet connections, the hard work is in the rearview mirror for Hillsboro residents.
Drivers approaching the town must slow from 45 mph to 25 mph before entering the first roundabout on the edge of town. Sidewalks, parking areas, lighting, raised crosswalks, markings and signs help keep traffic moving slowly until exiting the second roundabout on the other side of town.
Town boosters say visitors to the area’s wineries and breweries are increasingly making stops in Hillsboro. Neighbors are greeting neighbors as they walk their dogs, residents are walking instead of driving to the town’s Friday night concerts, and kids are strolling to class.
“It’s impossible to speed through town now,” Davis said. “That’s a great success, for the people who live there and want to have people come in and feel safe crossing the street.”
A small town ‘built to be neighborly’
Five miles from the West Virginia border, Hillsboro has yet to feel the bustle of most of Northern Virginia, although the recent investments promise a new era for the 269-year-old community, one of Virginia’s smallest incorporated towns.
On its eastern edge, foot traffic at Stoneybrook Farm and Market has doubled from early 2020 before the reconstruction and the pandemic, said Matt Scott, who manages the store. The shop, which started 15 years ago as a vegetable stand, is a bustling spot where people stop for a drink made in-house and often linger to chat with neighbors.
Scott said the store is pursuing an expansion to include a full-service restaurant, a bakery and a creamery on the 40-acre property.
Marasco, the vice mayor, said the road work has spurred improvements across the town. Five of Hillsboro’s 45 homes have undergone roof replacements this year, and the town’s convenience store, Hill Tom Market, recently completed a renovation. Residents are talking about a pizzeria and bed-and-breakfast opening this year.
The goal, Marasco said, is that picturesque Hillsboro, a one-time mill town, would become a destination — not only a stop for tourists visiting breweries and wineries nearby.
New Hillsboro residents said they have been welcomed with open arms.
Paul Hrebenak and his husband, James Fraser, moved to Hillsboro a year ago from the District’s Michigan Park neighborhood. The road project was a key reason to not only stay but also invest in the community, he said.
The couple is renovating a 250-year-old stone house into a bed-and-breakfast they hope to open this fall. He said the town is more attractive for tourists since they can stroll Route 9 to experience the architecture and history.
“It was hard to walk anywhere before. It felt like all you could do is drive to your house, get in your car, get out of your car, get in your car and drive somewhere else,” said Hrebenak, a D.C. police captain. “Now you can walk across the street to your neighbor. You can walk the dog up the street and run into people and sit and chat on the sidewalk, rather than on the side of a busy highway.”
Grace Olmstead, a writer who moved three years ago to Hillsboro from Alexandria, had her hands full reconnecting with neighbors and selling plants, lamps and furniture at the Saturday sale. Before the new road, she said, it was a struggle to get to the market across the street — in a car or on foot.
“We all had trouble pulling out of the driveway,” Olmstead told Jennifer Mehaffey, who was searching for antiques at the Hillsboro sale. Mehaffey, who lives in a nearby town, said she’s visited Hillsboro more often since the sidewalks were built.
“It’s amazing what they have done here,” she said.
More work is on the way. A $1.7 million project to build three new trails is progressing to construction this year. The town is raising money to create a visitors’ center at a town-owned property in the center of Hillsboro, with a museum, local art, artifacts and a cafe.
Olmstead, who wrote a book about a rural town and farm life, said the road project will help preserve Hillsboro’s charm for years to come.
“It’s a very small town and all the houses are very close together,” she said. “Hillsboro was built to be neighborly.”