AYER – Ayer selectmen unanimously gave their seal of approval Tuesday night to a newly hatched plan for a $4.22 million, 190-car commuter rail parking lot to be located off Main Street. The plan calls for the expansion of the present Nashua River Rail Trail parking lot, with a $1 million being set aside to negotiate the purchase of 5 privately-owned Park Street parcels that abut the Rail Trail lot.
It’s the latest incarnation of the selectmen’s push for a downtown Ayer commuter rail parking solution following the recent death of the long touted $11 million downtown parking garage proposal.
The selectmen opted for the retooled plan, dubbed “Option A” as presented by Montachusett Regional Transit Authority Director Mohamed Khan. The selectmen passed over Khan’s “Option B,” which proposed a $5.4 million, 260-car single-deck garage to be contained to the present Rail Trail parking lot footprint. The selectmen also rejected Khan’s “Option C” for a $2.4 million, 120-car reconfigured Rail Trail parking lot.
Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan effectively killed the notion of an $11 million, 400-car parking garage in September. In his letter to the Ayer selectmen, Mullan echoed damning key points raised by MassDOT in an August 10 letter that nixed state money for the garage plan. MassDOT cited low-balled construction estimates, a lack of assembled financing, the walking distance to the Depot Square train stop across Main Street, the lack of handicapped accessibility upgrades at the train stop, traffic congestion issues, and an appearance that the garage plan catering more to downtown businesses than commuter parking needs.
Khan said in order to leverage a $3.15 million federal transportation earmark set aside for Ayer commuter parking needs by former Congressman Martin Meehan there must be at least a 20-percent state match. But to make Option A work, Khan said lobbying must continue for an $800,000 state contribution. The remaining $266,000 needed would come from Ayer, Khan proposed.
Since its long been confirmed that there’d be no eminent domain land takings for a parking fix, Khan built in $1 million for the purchase and clearing of the five Park Street parcels with a combined assessed value of $628,500. Khan also factored in $500,000 for a pedestrian and traffic fix.
Another long simmering issue has been obtaining an easement for pedestrian passage over Depot Square land aside the tracks owned by the Berry Family. The land is atop what historically was a rail spur off the main line that sent trains north along what’s now the Rail Trail bike path. The Berry argument is allegedly that since the tracks were removed long ago, the railroad easement rights to pass over the land expired. Previous efforts to negotiate a fix have failed to materialize into a legal agreement.
Ayer resident Tom Gibbons challenged Khan on the easement situation, “I’ve heard about that for 4-5 years. It shouldn’t be a very complicated matter to figure out.”
Gibbons charged that to pursue the parking plan without clearing the Depot Square title issue was “fiscally irresponsible.” Selectman Chairman Rick Gilles, up for reelection this spring, challenged Gibbons back that he could go ahead and run for Gilles seat.
“I’m done in April. I’d be more than happy to have you jump in,” said Gilles. “We’ve done our best.”
Gilles left mid-meeting, 9 p.m., to participate in a conference call he said, and wasn’t immediately available to confirm his intention to stand down this spring.
Khan admitted, “Mr. Berry’s very important. We need to bring him to the table but we can’t.” Khan said the matter is still being investigated with a belief that perhaps a rogue easement was actually executed and recorded at the Cambridge Registry of Deeds, posing a needle-in-the-haystack situation to try to clear the title matter.
“There should be an easement between Main Street and the existing facility. If we can find that, we are better off. If we cannot find it, we may have to procure some land to create an access to the platform,” Khan said. A sum of $300,000 was built into the new plan to try to negotiate a patch for that problem.
Also $100,000 was built in to pave 3 parcels of land the selectmen have been negotiating to purchase on Central Avenue to provide temporary parking while the Rail Trail lot is built. Khan also built in a 12-percent cost overrun contingency cushion – just in case – because “I’m sure that may have some error here or there” since the constrained costs “can go up or down.”
Although an Montachusett Regional Planning Commission report released in December warned that even a 400-car garage would be to small to meet commuter needs by the time it could be built, Khan held out hope that Lowell Congresswoman Niki Tsongas could secure further earmarks to “build on decks” atop the land later.
Ayer officials, assisted by State Senator Jamie Eldridge who followed the local delegation out of district, swarmed a groundbreaking ceremony in Fitchburg on Monday for the $55 million extension of the Fitchburg rail line into West Fitchburg. Khan said Eldridge helped steer state decision makers Ayer’s way.
Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand himself was able to pose “the $800,000 question” directly to Mullan for state matching money. Pontbriand said Mullan “was very interested in seeing this revised proposal that fit within those cost constraints. He indicated to me, for what it’s worth, the issue of the release of the $800,000 was at his discretion and could be resolved.” Khan said the money needn’t all flow in one year, but rather could be spread over a 2-year period and still spark the release of the federal earmark.
Pontbriand said he was also seated next to Lt. Governor Tim Murray on a shuttle bus ride during the event. During the ten minute ride, Murray indicated he’d be responding to the selectmen’s prior letters lobbying for state matching dollars “so there was support there as well. We’re looking to move the process along. There’s not definitives yet.”
Selectmen Chairman Rick Gilles expressed concern with any financial request of Ayer to cover the $267,000 gap but said “All we have to do is not buy one of the properties. But I would be reticent to say we’d definitely contribute that sort of money. I would certainly endorse us finding a way to find the difference in the project design. I wouldn’t feel good saying we’d spend an additional $200,000 on this.”
Selectman Frank Maxant has previously voiced opposition to taking Park Street properties off the tax rolls, but voted in favor of Option A Tuesday night. He said revenues raised from a parking lot could aid in a further parcel purchase down the road. “The future holds all kinds of options.”
Khan will fine tune the proposal to submit to the state with a letter of endorsement appended by the selectmen as soon as possible but not before Ayer’s Special Town Meeting set for next Monday, Oct. 25, where voters will be asked to sanction the purchase of the three targeted Central Avenue parcels touted for temporary-turned-permanent parking for the town.
Khan said, though, the race is on to seek an approval from the Patrick Administration before any possible change in leadership following the Nov. 2 General Elections. “We want to get the state to allocate the money and we want it in case there’s a change in the administration. if there’s no change, obviously you can have it at the beginning of the year. If there’s a change, we’re back again at square one.”
The selectmen voted 4-0 to approve of the new parking lot plan. Selectman Gary Luca recued himself from the unanimous vote, as relatives own one of the targeted Park Street parcels, the vacant La Sita Restaurant, for purchase for the proposed expanded Rail Trail lot.