AYER - The Ayer Board of Selectmen voted 3-1 with one recusal to move forward with a $4 million expanded Rail Trail commuter rail parking lot proposal for Park Street. The selectmen vote comes after the town has been notified it has received a fresh assurance on a long-promised $3.2 million federal contribution towards the project.
The same sum was secured for Ayer by former congressman Martin Meehan. That earmark expired last fall due to sunset provisions enacted by Congress to recoup unspent transportation earmarks.
On Oct. 9 came word that Congressman Niki Tsongas, who is challenged in her re-election bid on Nov. 6, has been able to secure a fresh $3.2 Federal Transit Administration (FTA) commitment. Tsongas travels to Ayer Monday morning for 10 a.m. press conference at the Rail Trail parking lot.
Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand noted that the parking lot was identified repeatedly as the "number one priority" when he was hired in 2010. "I inherited this project."
Pontbriand said the lot "remains a work in progress. The release of this earmark was a step."
The selectmen voted on May 17 to fund the remaining $800,000 needed in three equal shares of $266,667 each. One share of $266,667 is to come from the selectmen-controlled Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) account.
Another third is to come from a 6-year, 2 percent loan secured by the Montachusett Area Regional Transit (MART) Authority. The town was to repay the loan over six
The final third was to come from MassDOT - or at least that's what the selectmen had hoped in the spring. But ultimately, MassDOT refused to fund the project four times.
Pontbriand made no mention of the troubled MassDOT history, but instead said the town awaits word on whether it qualifies this year for a MassWorks grant to cover the $266,667 balance. Ayer didn't' qualify last year. Pontbriand said "all indications are that we will get it" this time around, thanks to pressure applied by the local delegation.
"Until we get it in writing, that remains a variable on the project," said Pontbriand.
Originally construed as a tiered parking garage, Pontbriand said the facility will be an expansion of the present open-air 80-space Rail Trail parking lot. According to rough sketches, an entrance and exit would be added off Park Street.
One hundred spaces would be added to bring the lot to approximately 180 spaces. Pontbriand assured the selectmen that local voices would be heard to ensure the lot "blends into the town's townscape and fits appropriately."
On the to-do list is for the Town of Ayer to acquiring title to the state-owned Rail Trail trailhead lands and parking lot from the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). Pontbriand said "that was on hold" until the funding was again secured.
Pontbriand stressed the Park Street properties to be purchased and leveled would not be taken by eminent domain. Pontbriand said the town needs to purchase "three vacant commercial properties."
But within moments, Montachusett Area Regional Transit (MART) Executive Director Mohamed Khan said actually "there are six of them".
Khan said MART has planned to buy six, not three, Park Street parcels with four standing buildings to be demolished. Those buildings include: the empty Victorian-style home across Park Street from Dunkin Donuts, the empty LaSita Mexican restaurant, Nu-Kar auto sales, and the building owned by Phil Berry that houses both Fresh Ayer Sports and a new nail salon.
Montachusett Regional Planning Commission (MRPC) Transportation Project Director Georg Kahale handed out sketches that showed a parking lot configuration that incorporated all six parcels.
"First we have to contact the owner of the properties and they have to be willing to sell their property," said Kahale. "Then we start the process of appraisal, then we have to do a 21E [contamination] study of the property before we negotiate the price."
"I want to make it very clear," said selectman Frank Maxant who has been a steady supporter of the project. Maxant wanted Berry's properties, numbered 4 and 5, removed from the plan. "If that's a condition for the lot, I am opposed to it," said Maxant forcefully.
Khan tried to explain but Maxant continued, "Anything you said doesn't change what I just said. If the project can't proceed without four and five, then I'm opposed to it."
"Then it will reduce parking," said Khan.
Khan sought the board's authorization to begin negotiations with the owners of parcels 1 through 5. Khan also sought approval to negotiate with Berry, who owns what's identified as parcel #6 on a map distributed to the selectmen.
Parcel #6 is located to the left of and behind Archer's Mobil across Main Street from the Rail Trail lot. The plan has been to negotiate an easement for pedestrians to cross over Berry's land which constitutes Depot Square so commuters can access the train tracks and boarding platform.
Selectman Christopher Hillman asked Maxant if his mind would change if all the Park Street owners were willing to sell. Maxant said he'd be opposed to loosing that number of taxpaying parcels on Park Street.
"It's contrary to why this is happening in the first place," said Maxant.
Kahale said a hard copy of the FTA approval is "in the mail" but assured the board that approval is now in hand electronically to proceed.
"The bottom line is you can spend money," once the DCR signs over its land, said Khan. Then negotiations with property owners can begin (with appraisals Khan projected a two month process) and an RFP for architects can launch.
The board voted 3-1, with Pauline Conley voting against the measure and selectman Gary Luca recusing himself from the vote because of his familial relationship with the owners of LaSita.
Khan said Tsongas would be "officially presenting the $3.2 million check to you" on Monday. Conley disagreed with the characterization that the money would flow into a Town of Ayer bank account. Rather, "We authorize you to spend it," Conley said to Khan. "We will not be cutting a check."
Khan agreed, stating that MART submits bills to the FTA who pays contractors. "The citizens of Ayer are not going to spend a penny in terms of principal, interest - nothing," said Khan. "You're simply going to be a beneficiary for the project."
Khan suggested that MART can administer payments "if that's the desire of the selectpersons - all of you."
"You might not want to suggest it be unanimous," cautioned Conley, who opposes the Park Street location of the parking lot in favor of West Main Street.
"We have to thank the congresswoman," said Kahale. "She did an excellent job pushing the funding to this point Without her, this project would never move."
"Are you going to promise us there's not going to be 4-5 layers of cars," asked Conley. Khan had previously talked of town residents first feeling at ease with the Park Street location and then adding a parking garage structure atop the lot at a later date.
"This is your property," said Khan. "If you authorize it, we can build a garage for you. We do whatever you desire and dictate us to do."
Follow Mary Arata at facebook.com/mary.arata and twitter.com/maryearata.