AYER — The official title of the ambitious building project in progress on Groton Street, where a groundbreaking ceremony was held this week, is the Rail Trail/Commuter Rail Improvement Project.
The roughly $5 million project will see what was once just a parking lot turned into a 2-story parking garage with significantly more spaces.
Familiarly dubbed the Ayer train station parking garage, locals acquainted with its history may have doubted the plan would ever get off the drawing board.
Long awaited, often detoured, and now, finally, underway, the project has faced a few hurdles since town proponents and Montachusett Regional Transit Authority planners envisioned it a couple of decades ago.
“Good things come to those who wait,” said Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand, tapping the adage as he introduced speakers at Monday morning’s groundbreaking event.
But before the project could move ahead, the town needed unrestricted public access to the train station platform, which it did not have then but has since acquired, thanks in part to what one of the speakers called Ayer’s “dogged” determination to get the job done.
And, apparently help at the state level from state Reps. Sheila Harrington, Jen Benson and other Beacon Hill advocates, including Sen. Jamie Eldridge.
Specifically, since the new garage will be located on Groton Street, it will include a walking path to access Main Street and the train station.
But getting access to put a path to the train platform was a challenge.
Although the pedestrian route is on public land from the Groton Street parking site to Main Street, a crucial piece was missing: direct access to the train platform via a parcel of privately-owned land off Main Street.
That land is now town property, but it was a struggle, taken by eminent domain after protracted and often heated negotiations with the property owner broke down. At one point, a fence pointedly prevented access.
MART Director Mohammed Khan, on the job for 40 years, said the project has been a work in progress for fully half his tenure and he was very happy to see it get off the ground.
In a phone conversation last week, Ayer Assistant Town Administrator Carly Antonellis acknowledged the project launch has been a long time coming. “This has been twenty years in the making,” she said.
Now, it’s all about setting up a safe route. To get to and from the train, commuters who use the new parking garage must cross Main Street. Asked if that piece posed traffic issues, Antonellis said the plan calls for improving the road crossing. That point was underscored at the recent ceremony when Pontbriand enumerated some of the station upgrades included in the project, including bathroom facilities and, eventually, handicapped access to the platform.
Antonellis traced the planning process from 2012, when the town snapped up a $4.2 million federal funding earmark and began laying groundwork for the garage, slated for completion by the end of this year.
The town-owned land chosen for the new facility has served as a parking lot for some time, with 10-12 spots reserved for the Nashua River Rail Trail.
From Ayer, the trail branches out to Groton on one side and to Pepperell and Dunstable on the other, stretching to the Nashua, New Hampshire line.
There are rail trail parking lots in Groton and Dunstable as well as in Ayer, with 10-12 gravel spaces on Sand Hill Road in Groton and 10 more in Dunstable, at the New Hampshire line.
Antonellis suggests that trail users turn to those other two lots for the time being. However, they are welcome to park at Depot Square or in the municipal lot on Park Street, with about 20 spaces, she said.
About 10 percent of the 180 spaces in the new, two-level parking garage will be designed for rail trail users, free, Antonellis said. For the rest, parking fees will be about $4 a day, free on weekends.
The project has been a collaboration of time, effort and dollars. The current total, according to Pontbriand adds up to $4.2 million: $3.2 million from the Federal earmark, $266,000 from a Mass Works grant, $250,000 from MART and $250,000 from a UDAG grant awarded to the town of Ayer.
Devens looms large in the big picture as well, and MassDevelopment officials were on hand to wield shovels at the groundbreaking, including Senior Vice President for Devens, Jessica Strunkin, who pledged the agency’s commitment to helping the town of Ayer deal with parking issues during construction of the new parking facility.
Peter Butler, Deputy Regional Administrator for the U.S. Department of Transportation, stressed the importance of partnerships in seeing this project through.
“We don’t build or run things, we invest,” he said.