Part two in a two-part series
AYER — Although the Board of Selectmen has opted to pursue a three-story, 300-350 space parking garage at the Rail Trail site, a number of questions remain about the project.
The facility would be built in conjunction with the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority (MART), and has been portrayed by its boosters as key to solving the downtown’s parking shortage and retaining the commuter rail station long-term.
Nevertheless, differing opinions have surfaced since the size of the garage was revealed during a selectmen’s meeting on July 14.
Among those who support the facility is Ayer resident and House of Representatives hopeful Carol Bousquet, who organized an action group to save the train station in January.
She cited statements by MART administrator Mohammed Kahn that additional parking is vital to keeping Ayer’s rail stop, and said public support for that solution was strong when her group circulated a petition to save Ayer’s station earlier this year. The petition called for Ayer to provide improved services at the station such as parking and garnered over 4,000 signatures, which Bousquet took as indicative of public opinion.
“Overwhelmingly people agree that we need parking,” she said.
Bousquet acknowledged statements by her opponent in the fall election, Rep. Robert Hargraves, that the station is no longer in danger of closure, but said such assurances can evaporate in the future without the long-term anchor of the parking facility.
“There is always the chance the funding will go away or that state agencies involved can change their mind at any time,” Bousquet said. “We need to remain relentless.”
Those against the current drive for the garage have cited widespread public opposition to a similar concept, proposed in January 2004.
Former Planning Board chairman William Oelfke lives within walking distance of the commuter rail and said he’s heard a lot about the new garage in recent months; however, his interpretation of public sentiment differed from Bousquet’s.
“Most of the people in my neighborhood were for keeping the train station where it is, but they were against putting in a large garage,” he said.
“There are two chances: Slim and none, and I think none is going to win,” he quipped.
Oelfke said he has been fruitlessly advising the board for years to take a hard look at whether a downtown rail station actually benefits Ayer.
He said a rail station placed in a central location between Ayer and Shirley would alleviate downtown traffic problems for both towns. He added there is a general perception among downtown merchants that commuters are not consumers.
Perhaps ironically, that solution closely resembles the plan considered by the state late last year, which ran into substantial community opposition. However, Oelfke said the town probably wouldn’t need the garage if the station were moved elsewhere.
Oelfke said the Board of Selectmen’s response has been that the grants could migrate if progress wasn’t made and that there wasn’t time for such measures.
“Those are the same words they used two years ago when I asked,” he said, “and by the way, the money’s still here.”
The money referred to is the $4 million in state and federal grants that is expected to get the project rolling.
Though he’s expressed concern those funds could migrate, selectmen Chairman Frank Maxant said he supported Oelfke’s idea of putting the garage question on the ballot, provided it was done through a citizen’s petition.
“I am very much in favor of anything that gets the public more involved,” he said. “I like Bill’s suggestion very much and would do anything I could as a selectman to help make it happen.”
For much of the previous year, selectmen maintained they were seeking to increase parking by adding a number of smaller lots within walking distance of the train station; a plan Chairman Maxant confirmed has since fallen by the wayside.
Maxant said the plan was derailed when it was learned that the grants probably couldn’t be used to build a number of small facilities, since that would be considered an inefficient use of funds. Such a plan would require a great deal of land acquisition from private parties, which would be difficult in downtown Ayer, he said.
Maxant said he’s heard a great deal of questioning in recent weeks about the change of plans, but he cited a need to fix the parking shortage and keep the rail station local as motivating factors, saying there’s a limited window of opportunity for the grants.
“Those two are the same,” he said of parking and the rail station. “The federal grants migrated from Littleton when they couldn’t use them and could migrate from Ayer if we don’t find a way to use them.”
Maxant acknowledged the opposition in 2004, but noted significant differences in the current proposal.
The first version would have had three levels and would have been sited in the center of Depot Square, which Maxant said would have drastically changed the character of downtown.
In the newer version, the first level would be excavated down to the level of Park Street, the second floor would roughly coincide with the current Rail Trail parking lot’s elevation and there would be no roof on the third level, which Maxant said would make it much less obtrusive.
For those reasons, Maxant won’t call the new structure a garage, but said he supports what it can do for the downtown.
Unlike the Depot Square location, he said the Rail Trail location would have access off Park Street and would reduce traffic at the congested corner of Park and Main.
Beyond that, details about the new proposal remain vague. The expectation is for the facility’s profile to be fleshed out during the design process over the coming year.
Resident Patrick Hughes, who has been a booster of the current process, said he’s heard overwhelming support for the garage and was puzzled by those who oppose it.
While he cautioned the process is in its early phases, he said it offers a chance to upgrade the Park Street corridor, preserve the train stop, and enhance downtown parking, all funded via grants.
“It’s not costing the taxpayers of Ayer a dime,” Hughes said. “If they were asking Ayer to cough up four or five million dollars, I could see why people would be upset, but they’re not.”