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While official confirmation remains virtually nil, the suspicion that Ayer stands to lose millions in grants currently earmarked for its commuter rail stop in favor of a regional station titled “Devens” appears to be gaining in credibility.

Rumor has it that the regional station would be located near Pattenden Road in Shirley, just down the way from the Ayer/ Devens border.

It would be built with funds currently earmarked for Ayer and would provide MassDevelopment with a rail stop near most of the 1,800 housing units they are seeking for Devens.

Rail station concerns of Ayer residents were heightened at a selectmen’s meeting recently when they were told, a) Ayer would need to “partner” with MassDevelopment and Shirley to upgrade nearby McPherson Road, and b) that those “partners” aren’t willing to consider a guarantee that Ayer keep its rail station as part of the Devens disposition discussion.

That combination of circumstances does not bode well for Ayer keeping its station, especially since its two “partners” figure to be the major beneficiaries if Ayer’s current deal to upgrade its station falls through.

As it is, Ayer has about $4 million in grants to upgrade the rail station and build a parking lot. But the town needs a location that can handle 300 new parking spaces or the money is likely to migrate.

Ayer retaining its rail station might hinge on that permission, which could put the town over a barrel, since one state agency (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) wants the Ayer station consolidated and another (MassDevelopment) would greatly benefit from that consolidation.

Further, all of this has been linked to the rumors that upgrading McPherson Road and a “Devens” station are connected at the proverbial hip. (It should be noted that upgrading McPherson Road is considered important because once the low overpass is removed, the road can be used to divert traffic from Ayer’s downtown. We seem to recall that this upgrade has been promised before, but we digress…)

McPherson Road and the Devens station are connected as follows:

Upgrading the low railroad overpass at McPherson Road with a tunnel or bridge is too expensive. But MassDevelopment has agreed to fund a cheaper solution, provided the town gives in to the demand that 200 housing units be included in Ayer’s piece of Devens redevelopment at North Post.

The solution is an “at-grade” crossing (where the road simply crosses the tracks).

However, it’s MBTA policy not to increase the number of at-grade crossings on the line, which means one would need to be removed somewhere else if Ayer gains an at-grade crossing at McPherson.

It was not mentioned what Shirley would want in return. With circumstances being what they are, and the Devens disposition process at full throttle, it’s doubtful they would do it for free.

While that’s an unknown, several things are clear.

* There’s been a lot of uphappy noise in Ayer since the MBTA announced it was considering consolidation of the Ayer and Shirley stations into a central location called Devens. Oddly enough, Shirley’s response has been quiet.

* Rail stations, as we know, are good for property values.

* It’s been established that if Ayer cannot use its federal money to improve the station, the funds could be re-routed. Ayer’s rail station hinges on the whim of a state agency to allow 300 parking spaces at the Rail trail; not a good situation when two other state agencies have a vested interest in seeing it close.

If that permission is denied, it’s reasonable to think the money will be diverted shortly after — perhaps to a new regional station in Shirley?

Under that scenario, Shirley would get a multi-million dollar station free of charge and MassDevelopment would get a train station near its new mega-subdivision.

In return, Ayer could settle for the at-grade crossing and for help upgrading McPherson Road.

Admittedly, that scenario involves some degree of conjecture, but the fact that Ayer retaining its station isn’t even on the table with its “partners” should be cause for alarm

It’s reasonable to assume Ayer can still gain in these present circumstances, but they also have a lot to lose.

The disturbing part is that what they’d lose will likely wind up in their “partner’s” pocket.

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