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Hopes that Ayer will keep train station not as bright

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AYER — Even though Ayer has almost $4 million in state and federal money available to upgrade its commuter rail facilities, there’s a growing perception the town is in danger of losing its train stop.

Depending on who you ask, the concerns stem from planning commissions looking to reduce commute times to Boston, desire for a regional station near Devens, or a lack of parking in the Ayer downtown.

With all those factors involved, it’s an issue with several moving parts. It’s also a concern that Ayer resident Carol Bousquet has been working to draw attention to. Bousquet firmly believes Ayer should retain its station. She has been working to gather information on the topic since December and called a public meeting to rally local support in January.

While she conceded her inquires are ongoing, she cited recent activity at the MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) as clear cause for concern.

The MBTA has an improvement plan for the Fitchburg line on its Web site that calls for the Ayer and Shirley stations to be consolidated into a regional station titled “Devens” some time in the next 15 to 20 years.

Bousquet said that idea has surfaced several times at public hearings held by the MBTA and other transportation authorities in recent months. It’s typically under the heading of reducing commute times. The goal received strong local support in Fitchburg at a MBTA hearing in December, she added.

On the local level, she said updates on how government grants would be used to improve Ayer’s commuter parking seem to have stalled.

Though there’s some conjecture involved with drawing conclusions at this point, she said the issue is clear.

It wouldn’t be the first time those funds have been diverted: The funding currently earmarked for Ayer was originally targeted at upgrading station facilities in Littleton.

At the public meeting called by Bousquet in January, it was confirmed the same thing could happen in Ayer, if a suitable plan to improve the parking isn’t found.

On the other side of the fence from Bousquet is Ayer resident James Lucchesi. He thinks the rail station does little for the downtown, but wants to get word out on what he said is being considered by transportation authorities nonetheless.

Lucchesi periodically represents Ayer on the Montachusett Area Regional Transportation (MART), which is the regional transportation authority of the Fitchburg line for points west of Littleton.

Lucchesi said it’s been clear for at least four years that the MBTA wants a station at Devens but doesn’t want three stops between Ayer and Shirley. He said they’d prefer a consolidation of the two existing stations instead.

By his account, the plan would involve a new station near Pattenden Road in Shirley, which is near a conjunction of Ayer, Shirley and Devens.

As part of that plan, the at-grade railroad crossing at Walker Road in Shirley would be closed and the road would be re-directed to connect with the new station.

He said a regional station and upgrading McPherson Road in Ayer, which is a major goal for the town in the negotiations surrounding Devens, are linked. He said eliminating the at-grade crossing on Walker Road would also allow the low overpass on McPherson Road to be remedied without an expensive bridge or tunnel; for safety reasons, the MBTA is not allowing additional at-grade crossings of the railroad tracks.

Asked about the scenario outlined by Lucchesi, Shirley town administrator Kyle Keady said there have been no formal discussions about moving Shirley’s rail station in over two years.

He said in the past, MassDevelopment proposed that a station be established adjacent to the Shirley Middle School. But, he added, the idea foundered quickly in the face of community opposition and has not been resurrected.

Asked the prospects of a regional station near Pattenden Road, Keady said “anything’s possible,” but iterated the question has not been raised.

He did, however, confirm that Shirley did acquire 33 acres between Walker and Pattenden roads in 2001, but said that was completely unrelated.

“The reason we acquired it had nothing to do with the MBTA. We acquired it for other reasons,” said Keady.

Delorier stated that the MBTA’s original upgrade plans had included a stop at Devens, but MassDevelopment had asked that it be removed. She said the agency wasn’t interested in hosting a station unless one of the neighboring towns proposed it.

While she iterated no proposals are out there now, she indicated improved rail service could be of interest to Devens.

By Lucchesi’s account, a new station is likely to swing on agreements between the state transportation authorities and MassDevelopment.

“The bottom line is, there is going to be a train station for Devens. I think by that, you’re going to see closure of the Ayer and Shirley stations,” he said.

Lucchesi added that MART is currently waiting to see what Ayer will do with its parking situation, which was confirmed by MART administrator Mohammed Kahn.

Kahn said the Ayer station needs to be upgraded, but its parking deficiencies make the expenditure hard to justify.

He also expressed reservations with Ayer’s current solution of having multiple parking facilities near the station to correct its shortfalls, saying any parking facility underwritten by federal grants would need to include at least 300 spaces.

He also said that Ayer’s current focus on upgrading the Rail Trail parking lot could be a suitable solution.

“We’re all hoping that the Rail Trail can become the site,” he said. “If it is not the case, everyone would have to re-evaluate what we’re going to do.”

Kahn would not go into details about what that would entail, saying only that MART was looking at Ayer at this point.

“If we cannot find a place to locate a garage, it becomes a problem,” he added. “If this Ayer thing fails, we’ll have to look at other places.”

Ayer’s Economic and Community Development Director Shaun Suhoski disagreed that all the parking spaces must come from one location. That factor shouldn’t outweigh Ayer’s status as a “poster child” for smart-growth planning, he said.

Having already investigated the prospects of a large downtown garage last year only to find it unpopular locally, he said the town has been up front with MART about its pursuit of two remote parking locations. Parking-space target numbers shouldn’t be the key criteria, he said.

Instead, he focused on a high level of regional and walk-up ridership for the Ayer station, noting it regularly has the highest number of passengers of any stop west of Acton.

He confirmed that the additional parking is vital to maintaining the station and that permission to use the Rail Trail site is central to the current solution. The site is currently under the purview of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, which would be offered additional on-site parking and amenities in return for use of the site, he said.

Suhoski met last week with key representatives to discuss the matter. He said he came away with the impression they were responsive to the idea. He said they are planning to take a site walk shortly.

He remains hopeful the town can reach a solution, he said, but set against that optimism is a recent letter to selectmen from MBTA general manager Daniel Grabauskus. The letter was a response to a statement from the selectmen that outlined their unanimous position that the town should keep its station. It was largely noncommittal, said Suhoski, on the concerns voiced by the selectmen.

The letter mentioned consideration of a regional station, specifically. Suhoski interpreted that as clear indication the idea is still out there.

He said it’s Shirley’s prerogative to relocate if it wants. But he maintained that a regional station and the MBTA’s goal of a shorter commute shouldn’t come at the expense of an established and busy station.

Overall, Suhoski conceded he isn’t as optimistic about the possibility of Ayer retaining its station as he was when the grants were awarded. But he remains hopeful that policy-makers will see its value when the time comes to make a decision.

“There’s a way everyone’s goals can be accomplished here and I’m hoping we move in that direction,” he said.