MassDOT knocks wheels off Ayer’s rail-trail parking lot

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AYER — After several incarnations and variations on the same theme, Ayer’s town administrator advised the Board of Selectmen Tuesday night to consider a new location for a commuter-rail parking fix.

That after he received a letter, dated Feb. 4, from state Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan that effectively knocked the wheels of a half-decade effort to steer a state and federally financed parking lot to the head of the Nashua River Rail Trail bike path parking lot, near the intersection of Park and Main streets.

Mullan advised in a succinct, one-page letter that the state “is not in a position” to fork over an $800,000 state match required to trigger the release of a $3.2 million federal transportation earmark secured for an Ayer parking fix by prior Congressman Marty Meehan.

“I think we’ve reached a point as a town; we need to regroup and see how we want to proceed,” said Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand. “I’ve worked on this for six months, some of you for a decade. The secretary is not going to authorize the release of the match. We need the match to get to the earmark. I wish I had better news. The situation seems clear that the funding is not going to come to fruition.”

A push for an $11 million parking garage at the rail trail was deflated last year. The rail trail remained the site for a smaller scale $4 million parking lot, again at the rail trail location.

But the rejection reasons remain the same. Pontbriand said state Sen. Jamie Eldridge’s office informed him, after numerous efforts to lobby MassDOT, that the major stumbling block is that the rail-trail parking lot is across the busy Main Street from, and not adjacent to, the MBTA train platform for Ayer’s downtown Depot Square train stop, which is not handicapped accessible.

Even with the downsized parking lot proposal, Pontbriand said he’s been advised that the state will not allow the loss of anything less than the minimum 50 parking spaces set aside for rail-trail users. Mullan’s letter also states there would be no waiver granted to permit a smaller $3 million strictly federally financed parking lot because the rail-trail location “would not facilitate an internodal connection between local buses and commuter rail.”

Pontbriand outlined some imperative.”Everybody agrees the most important thing is to maintain the train stop in Ayer,” and that there remains a parking need.

Selectmen Chairman Jim Fay, who’s long supported the rail- trail location for the parking solution, was shocked. “This is the first time I’ve seen this letter.”

Fay uttered words that may change the selectmen’s course on the project. “If I keep the platform and I can’t get a garage near the platform, then I’ve got to put the platform where I can put a garage.” Fay suggested asking the Montachusett Area Regional Transit Authority (MART) whether or not a previously marginalized call for locating a parking facility and a train stop on West Main Street is doable. “If this is a show-stopper, I want to ask MART.”

Selectman Frank Maxant has been a staunch rail-trail location supporter. Without identifying potential target state- level decision makers, Maxant said former selectman Pauline Hamel has “already suggested political avenues” to take to make a stronger political case for the rail trail in Boston.

Pontbriand stressed that Ayer’s legislators have pledged to remain “on the same page” as lobbing efforts are concerned. As Ayer’s the second-highest ridership stop on the Fitchburg-to-Boston commuter rail, Pontbriand felt confident Ayer would retain a rail stop. As to how to capture the federal earmark, Pontbriand said, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” but added, “there are some inherent issues we cannot overcome” with the rail-trail lot.

“Oh boy,” sighed Fay, who called for the reactivation of those who’ve been involved in the issue over the past decade. “We already know who all the players are.” In that, Fay also called for supporters of the so-called West Main Street initiative because if the plan has failed to gain traction at the rail trail, “it’s got to work somewhere.”

Marty Wallace and Tom Gibbons are two citizens who have long advocated for a closer look at a West Main Street commuter rail depot. Wallace said plainly, “this letter, in my opinion, is pretty clear. They’re not doing it.”

But Wallace called for action, asking the selectmen to find out exactly what Ayer location is acceptable to the state. “We can drag this on for 10 more years. We’re going to lose the funding. It’s going to happen. Contact the Legislature and approach MassDOT and ask them exactly what they’re looking for…We’re just wasting our time.”

“It doesn’t take much to figure this out. It’s an embarrassment,” Wallace said.

Fay agreed, adding 10 years ago, Congressman Meehan said to the selectmen, “here’s your $3.2 million. Spend it quickly. Here we are 10 years later.” And Fay admitted to Gibbons that the town does need, indeed, a “Plan B.” Gibbons seized on Fay’s realization.

“Marty’s a little more forgiving than I am. Four years ago February, I said you should have a Plan B I said it was fiscally irresponsible. That’s exactly where we are tonight. It’s a shame,” said Gibbons. “Do your political attempts, but we need to get on the fast track.”

Gibbons advocated an immediate call to MART Executive Administrator Mohammed Khan. “Call Mo tomorrow. I’m sure he’s got in the back of his mind (where to site a parking lot). It’s a simple question that you should be able to get a quick answer on. Ask him. Then come back and see what the town wants.”