AYER — The Board of Selectmen and state Representative Robert Hargraves agree the town should keep its commuter rail station, but the actual future of the Ayer train station is open to debate.
While a majority of selectmen maintain that a large parking facility in the downtown area is essential to protect the station from closure, or from consolidation into a regional facility titled “Devens,” Representative Hargraves said the issues are not linked. He said a regional station is being considered by the state, but consolidation of the Ayer stop is no longer part of that discussion.
”That’s the main word I want to get out,” Hargraves said. Any new station “is not going to be at the expense of the Ayer station.”
The issue stems from a report commissioned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) last fall, which listed closure of the Ayer station as a measure that could improve commuting times between Cambridge and Fitchburg.
Under the MBTA scenario, the Ayer and Shirley stations would be consolidated into a single facility named “Devens.”
At the time, town officials were told by Mohammed Kahn of Montachusett Area Regional Transit (MART) that correcting the parking shortage in the downtown area was the surest way to preserve Ayer’s rail station. Since then, the town has been working diligently to establish at least 300 more commuter parking spots. The town has a $3.15 million federal grant for the project, but finding a location for the parking has been difficult.
Selectmen are eyeing the Rail Trail parking lot off Main Street, which is the under the purview of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. However, gaining permission to use the lot has been glacially slow in coming.
The topic was raised at the board meeting Tuesday night, when town administrator Shaun Suhoski referenced a letter from the Office of Commonwealth Development that he received on April 5.
Suhoski noted that the letter said nothing about the board’s request to use the Rail Trail site for parking, and urged the board to push for what he termed a suitable answer from the state.
Selectmen Chairman Faye Morrison concurred that parking is the key to the future of the Ayer train station. She acknowledged the talk of a new regional station, but said reduced ridership from having the new facility nearby could then open the Ayer station up to closure later.
”I think we need to continue to push for increased parking,” she said.
Selectman Frank Maxant asked if the regional station could mean migration of federal grants for the station. He posed the question to Congressman Marty Meehan’s district director, Roger Lau, who said he has heard rumors but added Meehan is committed to keeping those funds in Ayer.
In a telephone interview earlier that day, Hargraves said talk of the regional station stems from the development of Devens.
”Devens is going to be developed with houses and the train station is going to be needed to accommodate the growth,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been told and that’s what’s being studied by the MART right now.”
He said design work would include a parking facility to the north and west of Ayer, which would likely have over 500 spaces.
Hargraves referred the matter to the Office of Commonwealth Development deputy secretary Robert Garrity, whose office was created by Governor Mitt Romney and works with agencies such as the Department of Transportation and the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Garrity confirmed the focus is on a larger facility.
With the Rail Trail in a densely-developed zone, he said, parking in downtown Ayer would be more expensive than an open lot elsewhere but would allow the Ayer station to keep its current character. Garrity said there is no plan at the state level to close Ayer.
”The Romney administration is focused on transit-oriented development of downtowns,” he said. “Keeping the Ayer station is entirely consistent with what we’ve done.”
Kahn was on vacation last week and could not be reached, but MART representative Elizabeth Falk downplayed plans for a regional station.
She said MART is willing to work with any communities that can provide a location for the facility, and that much of the question still hangs on what happens with Devens.
”It’s really a moving target right now,” she said. “People are holding out to see what happens with the Devens piece. All of this is playing into that discussion there.”
At the board meeting Tuesday, the onus remained on parking for the Ayer train station, with vice chairman Cornelius “Connie” Sullivan saying Hargraves needs to push for permission to use the Rail Trail site.
Selectman Paul Bresnahan concurred, saying more parking could make a huge difference.
Finally, Hargraves said there is precedent for rail stops being preserved through an act of the Legislature, and would pursue that option if approved by a town meeting vote. Hargraves said Tuesday he had forwarded that language to the selectmen’s office, but Suhoski said he hadn’t seen it.