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AYER — The town is looking to partner with the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority (MART) to build a 350-space parking garage at the Rail Trail lot, but the Board of Selectmen has called for public input before committing to the site.

A forum was hosted by the Downtown Parking Task Force on Jan. 16.

Meeting moderator and Selectman Carolyn McCreary made it clear the meeting wasn’t for discussing alternative sites or advocating against the garage.

Laying out the baseline assumptions, she said MART needs at least 350 spaces to utilize the state and federal grants that subsidize the project. Town meeting in October accepted the transfer of the Rail Trail land for a garage, she said, and the selectmen have endorsed that idea.

Granted those assumptions, she said the goal is develop the idea.

“This is far from a done deal, but this is what we’ll be looking at right now,” she said. “We’ll be planning for this location, and if this task force decides it’s not the right location, we can move forward, but right now the mandate is for this site.”

However, a number of residents expressed concerns with how a garage would affect the look and feel downtown.

“It’s hard to think of a garage people like and would want locally,” said resident Harry Zane, who listed under-utilization and attracting unsavory characters as other potential byproducts. “Once you create a structure, variables people don’t like become involved. That’s what we’re facing here.”

Those concerns can be addressed in the design criteria, said McCreary.

Resident James Reynolds said he was there to “nip the project in the bud.” He questioned the designs being shown and how the group came to focus on its current site.

“I don’t know why you locked yourself into the Rail Trail,” he said. “There’s a lot of other land around.”

Several others urged keeping an open mind.

“All these guys are doing is giving you something to think about,” said resident Calvin Moore.

Among the speakers was MART administrator Mohammed Kahn, who said the authority would only proceed with what’s approved by the selectmen.

Granted that, he said the timeline includes retaining an architect and producing a design in the next nine months. He said it would take 18 to 24 months to complete the garage.

Despite high ridership figures, Kahn said the Ayer station has a commuter parking shortage that needs correcting if the town figures to retain its rail stop.

The project is projected to cost $7.5 million, which includes a traffic light that will be required to assist handicapped commuters crossing Main Street. A 700-foot platform will be required at the station to provide full wheelchair access, he said, and another $5 million for that item could be rolled into the project.

None of that cost will be borne by the town, said Kahn. The town has approximately $3 million in federal grants, $2 million from the state and needs to get another $2 million elsewhere for the garage, he said.

MART will find money for the platform, he said.

Kahn listed several criteria for project approval at the federal level including handicap accessibility, the proximity of parking to the station and cost. While he admitted that convincing people at the federal level to support this project won’t be easy, he said he’s confident he can do it.

He also assured Department of Public Works Superintendent Michael Madigan that testing would be done on soil at the Rail Trail as soon as an architect is retained.

Madigan cited the expensive site cleanup for the new fire station as basis for that concern.

“Determine early on whether the soil underneath the parking lot is contaminated,” he said. “I’m not trying to be negative, I’m just putting that out there.”

The task force next meets on Feb. 15 at 7 p.m.

MART is an appellate organization to the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, which oversees commuter rail service.

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