AYER -- Standing atop the Nashua River Rail Trail, officials gathered in downtown Ayer Monday morning to celebrate the recommitment of $3.2 million for an expanded Rail Trail parking lot. Congressman Niki Tsongas delivered word of the funding from the Federal Transit Authority earlier this month.
Former Congressman Martin Meehan originally obtained the $3.2 million earmark for commuter rail parking in Littleton, but was able to recommit the money for Ayer when Littleton rejected the sum. The Ayer earmark was due to sunset in 2011, but officials credit Tsongas for convincing the FTA to keep the earmark in place for the long-contemplated project.
Over the years, the project has been downsized from a proposed $11 million multi-tiered garage to the present proposal for a $4 million, open-air parking lot with access from both Park and Groton Streets.
Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand said the Depot Square train stop is "one of the most heavily used along the Fitchburg line." Also, transit officials state that 15 percent of commuters using the Ayer train stop access the platform by foot, as do a third of Ayer's rail commuters. Pontbriand said that statistic makes Ayer "perhaps the 'greenest' of the commuter rail stops along the line."
Ayer selectmen Chairman Jim Fay said that Town Meeting voted in 2007 "in favor of this platform. ... This is a long time coming." Fay thanked many selectmen, past and present, for pushing the project forward. "I look forward to seeing you all at the ribbon-cutting very soon."
Sen. Jamie Eldridge was present and thanked Pontbriand, who was hired in 2010 when the project was "a little bit in crisis." Eldridge also praised Tsongas for her "quiet but consistent persistence" in pushing the project forward.
Eldridge was joined by state Sen. Jennifer Flanagan. Though her district does not include Ayer, Flanagan said she could recall talk of an Ayer parking facility when she was a legislative aid in 1995. "We've come up against a couple of roadblocks," noted Flanagan.
Due to redistricting, Ayer's House representation is being divided. State Rep. Jennifer Benson, who faces no challenger in the Nov. 6 election, was on hand. Notably absent was state Rep. Sheila Harrington, who represents both of Ayer's precincts at this time. Harrington's name was also not mentioned during the ceremony. Harrington was not immediately available for comment after the event.
MBTA General Manager Jonathan Davis said the goal is to continue building on 19 months of increased rail ridership, and triple the use of "healthy transportation options by 2030. This helps towards that end."
Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Edward Lambert said to move the project toward reality, the DCR will be transferring its title interest and maintenance obligations in the rail trail parking lot to the Town of Ayer. Billed as a recreational lot on the weekends, but a commuter rail lot on the weekdays, Lambert agreed it's all about "connectivity. ... We pledge our support to this."
The Federal Transit Authority's New England Administrator Mary Beth Mello said the project is "multi-modal," which means it caters to those who opt to bicycle or drive to the train platform. "It's equally important to have options. This project brings it all together." Mello likewise credited Tsongas and her staff for working with the FTA to move the project forward.
In her race for a fourth term as a 5th District Congresswoman, Tsongas is challenged by Republican Jon Golnik. The Ayer check presentation ceremony comes two weeks before the Nov. 6 election.
The winds kicked up as she took to the podium. Leaves rustled and the tent erected for the ceremony blew around. Regarding the enormous check mounted on sandwich board behind her, Tsongas joked "we better get it out to you before it vanishes."
Tsongas said the $3.2 million for Ayer's parking lot "complements" the $270 million being used to upgrade the Fitchburg line, including double tracking, the construction of new platforms, upgraded signalization and a new Wachusett station in Westminster. With so many walkers hopping the train in Ayer, "what a wonderful model it is for other communities to follow," said Tsongas.
Mohamed Khan, administrator for the Montachusett Area Regional Transit Authority, said work can now begin to assemble the five Park Street parcels for the 180-car parking lot. Khan said selectmen have been "clear ... we cannot use eminent domain" takings, but that the landowners must "be persuaded" to sell for the project to proceed.
Khan said he's been warned to give "everybody a fair price," for their land. The five parcels include a vacant Victorian home across from Dunkin' Donuts, the former LaSita Mexican restaurant, Nu-Kar Auto Sales, a parcel of land aside the Rail Trail itself and the building at number 3-5 Park St. that currently houses two shops -- a nail salon and Fresh Ayer Sports bike and bait shop.
Fresh Ayer Sports owner Chuck King opposes the parking lot. King said he'd oppose the project whether his landlord's building is spared the wrecking ball or not.
"Niki Tsonags didn't ask the people of town what they want," said King. "Jamie Eldridge didn't either, and it concerns my business."
King has operated Fresh Ayer Sports for three and a half years in the Park Street building owned by Phil Berry. King was frustrated that the story on the fate of the building keeps changing.
"Everybody says to me they are not taking my building and that they don't want my building," said King. But according to charts and maps on display at the ceremony, King said it's clear. "The drawings I just saw do not have my building there." In place of the shop, the MART diagrams show Park Street access to the expanded Rail Trail parking lot would travel over the land now containing the building at 3-5 Park St.
Even if Berry's building was spared, King said he'd oppose the project. He's convinced a multi-tiered parking garage would eventually be built atop the lot. Khan has stated that could happen if the town wanted it.
"I think it's going to be a behemoth in the middle of town. It will take away from the beauty and charm of this town," said King. "I don't think they're telling everything."
King said it's hypocritical for leaders to claim environmental awareness but advocate for leveling trees to park cars aside a bike path. "Where's that carbon monoxide going to go?" asked King. "How can they be on one side of the fence and then skip over to the other side of the fence?"
The remaining $800,000 needed is to be funded in equal shares of $267,000. The selectmen voted to fund one share from the selectmen-controlled Urban Development Action Grant account. Another share is to be financed by a low-interest loan secured by MART and repaid with parking lot revenues. Eldridge said word is due this month on covering the final share with a MassWorks grant overseen by the Executive Office of Communities and Development.
"(Berry) has told me he doesn't want to sell" his Park Street land, said King. Officials must also negotiate an easement over Depot Square for continued pedestrian access to the train tracks. Berry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Former Ayer selectman Pauline Hamel said the ceremony lacked appropriate thanks for Meehan. "He was the one who got this grant," said Hamel. "He should get credit."
Hamel has long supported the project. While acknowledging "there have been a lot of people opposed to it," Hamel said, "I think more want to see it done. It's going to be beneficial to everybody. I'm sure of it."
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.