A week after word got out that the Town of Hillsboro was looking at an option to close both lanes of Rt. 9 through town at certain times of day during construction of its long-planned Pedestrian Safety and Traffic Calming Project, commuters who use the highway as a sole route through northwestern Loudoun bombarded the town with concern. Now, local leaders are addressing those concerns, which continue to grow.
Early last month, the town received three bids from construction firms interested in handling the project—which will create a safer place for pedestrians by installing new sidewalks and slow Rt. 9 traffic by constructing two roundabouts, one on Stoney Point Road and another on Hillsboro Road. Because the bids were all about $5 million to $10 million over engineers’ estimates, the town cancelled them and resolved to re-advertise the project on Aug. 29. That deadline was later extended to October, as the town worked alongside VDOT to amend the scope of work and lower costs.
One of the options to lower costs is to close Rt. 9 at certain times of the day, which could decrease construction time from 31-36 months to less than a year. But that option has upset many commuters who cut through town each day. According to estimates, about 17,000 vehicles move through the town daily, about 94 percent of which represent commuters from West Virginia and Maryland.
In addition to the adverse effects that temporary full road closures could have on all commuters, those living in West Virginia might feel the frustration even more, as the Maryland Transit Administration and MDOT recently proposed changes to the MARC Train Brunswick Line that would reduce service to stations in Harpers Ferry, Duffields and Martinsburg beginning Nov. 4—a proposal that could send thousands more commuters through Hillsboro.
According to a public hearing notice posted by the organizations, the reduction was proposed because the West Virginia state legislature appropriated only $1.1 million for MARC train service in Fiscal Year 2020—$2.3 million less than what MDOT and the transit administration required to continue service to West Virginia. “The State of Maryland cannot continue to absorb the cost of transit services provided outside the state at the expense of Maryland taxpayers,” the notice reads.
In response to the possible road closures and traffic backups, Clarke County, which learned of the matter during an Aug. 28 town meeting with regional public safety leaders, released a statement on Aug. 29. The county wrote that closing Rt. 9 in both directions “will add hundreds of cars per day toU.S. 340, Va. 7, and Rt. 612 in Clarke County and secondary roads in Loudoun County.”
The statement went on to outline that the additional traffic on those roads would lead to more crashes and result in injuries or deaths. “Hillsboro’s decision to entirely close Rt. 9 is driven by cost and convenience to the village,” the statement reads.
Throughout the next week, local leaders came rushing to Hillsboro’s defense. Of those, the most prominent voice was Mayor Roger Vance, who said he was “dismayed” that initial talks of reducing the project’s cost have been met with such adversity. He said the town is working collaboratively with VDOT to find “creative solutions” that are “driven by data and not emotions” and that he’s “very encouraged at the direction we’re taking.”
Vance stressed that the town “fully intends to communicate [with the public], but it’s a process that takes a little bit of time and willingness to look at all the options without people jumping to a conclusion that a decision had been made.”
“We’re going to find the right solutions,” he said. “We’re moving in the right direction.”
Vance on Monday also emailed winery, brewery and bed and breakfast owners in the Hillsboro area, noting that “there have been numerous—mostly inaccurate—reports in the press” regarding the project.
“The publication of knowingly inaccurate informationhas sown confusionamong the public andunfortunatelyhad a negative impact on the ongoing effortsof the town and VDOT toreach a decision on how tobestmanage the maintenance of traffic for this project,” he wrote.
Vance went on to write that the project will require more than 85 underground crossings of Rt. 9 and the installation of components like large manholes, all of which would require “inevitable” temporary full road closures.
“Facing a projected 31- to 36-month project that will cause significant delays is not acceptable to me, nor should it be for our businesses, residents, tourists and all of the thousands of commuters who use Route 9 every day,” Vance wrote. “My directive to all of our teams is to be innovative and come up with a plan thatgets the job done in 12 months or less.”
Vance pointed out that “what is important to remember is that there are safe local and regional detours that only add minutes in drive time.”
Some of the area’s business owners have agreed with Vance.
In a Sept. 3 letter to the mayor, Alta Jones, the owner of the AltaTerra Farm Bed and Breakfast & Vineyard, wrote that she would be forced to cease operations if the town decided to extend the road project for more than 30 months with a single Rt. 9 lane open, since getting workers to her vineyard is “already a struggle even if we offer compensation for time in traffic backups.”
Mark Wertheimer, the principal of the Hillsboro Charter Academy, also wrote to Vance and VDOT Commissioner Stephen Brich to express his support for temporary full Rt. 9 closures, noting that sidewalks need to be installed sooner than later for students to safely walk to and from school.
Wertheimer also pointed out that if the highway were to remain partially open, traffic backups caused by parents waiting in lines to pick their children up from school would be drawn out over the course of multiple years, as opposed to less than one year.
On Aug. 30, County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) wrote to Brich, Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine, VDOT Chief Engineer Barton Thrasher and VDOT Northern Virginia District Administrator Helen Cuervo to express her support for temporary full road closures, since, she wrote, the county and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority have both recognized the significance of the project and approved funding for it.
She noted that completing the Rt. 9 improvements prior to a few of Loudoun’s planned road projects and West Virginia’s planned Rt. 340 project would give traffic an alternative route during those times. “I believe this is the best approach to build the project in a safe, quick and cost effective way to provide congestion relief,” she wrote.
That same day, Supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) wrote to the same officials expressing his “strong support” for the proposed Rt. 9 closures, echoing Randall’s sentiment that the project should be completed before the Rt. 7/690 interchange project begins construction.
Buffington said he would work to provide motorists with “clear public information and guidance throughout the improvement process in order to minimize the impact of [the project].” “It should be built now, in the safest, fastest, most cost-efficient and least disruptive way possible,” he wrote.
Del. Dave LaRock (R-33) also wrote to the officials that VDOT should give “full consideration” to the proposal to close Rt. 9. He wrote that if VDOT determines the closures to be “a workable option,” VDOT should then host meetings with representatives from Loudoun’s neighboring localities “to vet concerns and seek input on how to minimize cost and inconvenience.”
In State Sen. Dick Black (R-13)’s letter to the officials, he urged VDOT to approve a revised traffic plan, which could include full Rt. 9 closures, to “conserve funds and accelerate this badly-needed project.”
Vance said the town is still hoping to re-advertise construction bids in October and get the project underway by the end of the year.