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Friday, January 29, 2010

Ayer, Mass., commuter line debated

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The latest meeting between state authorities, local officials and concerned citizens regarding the possible construction of a parking structure in downtown Ayer, Mass., revealed not only that the groups were miles apart about the type of structure that could be built, but that one of the key sources of funding for the project might not be available, the Ayer Public Spirit reports.

Representatives from each of the communities along the Fitchburg train line met on Jan. 21, in Devens to discuss the status of present and future mass transit projects in the area. The communities included in the meeting were Concord, Acton, Littleton, Ayer, Shirley, Lunenburg, Leominster and Fitchburg. Also present were officials from the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, the Montachusett Area Regional Transit Authority and the state House of Representatives.

Regarding Ayer's parking problems, Mohamed Khan, MART's executive administrator, said his group's plans call for a single multi-tiered 400-space parking garage at the intersection of Park and Main streets. That stands in contrast to the wishes to the Ayer Board of Selectmen, who continue to advocate for two, smaller-scale parking garages on either end of Main Street, a plan that has been dubbed the "hybrid solution."

The hybrid garage is so named because it would combine solutions more parking but at two different locations. The single-structure garage in the MART proposal, which was released in December, would cost $11 million, including $2 million for needed land purchases. MART has already set aside $3 million in federal funds for the project, leaving a $6 million gap for the groups to close before proceeding.

There is no proposed cost for a two-garage solution, because MART did not include it in their study. But as they continue to wrap their heads around funding, planners are also still squabbling about the plans for any parking solution.

No votes or deliberations occurred at the meeting. Rather it was an opportunity for local town officials to present the status of their needs and projects and pose concerns to state, MBTA and MART officials. The group also heard a presentation on overall Fitchburg Commuter rail line improvements in the works.

The MBTA's planning subcontractors HNTB presented an update, outlining the hallmarks of the authority's efforts to both increase reliability and decrease train travel time to and from Boston. The $150-million overall project was financed equally by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds and state transit dollars. Engineering was 60 percent complete as of last fall. Construction will commence late this fall and wrap by December 2013.

The original laundry list of railway fixes totaled about $260 million, pared down to $150 million when "some things fell out of the budget," said HNTB Project Manager Phil Brake, including work on a Waltham station.

Remaining in place were plans to replace signaling systems from Acton to North Station. Thirteen railroad crossings and six bridges will be reconfigured, altered or replaced in Acton, Concord, Littleton, Shirley and Lunenburg. Double tracking is planned between in Ayer and Acton and is to be complete by December 2011. The Fitchburg line's control tower will relocate from Waltham to Somerville.

Train speeds in the area will also increase from 60 to 80 mph to reduce the travel times between Fitchburg and Porter Station by nine minutes.

Once construction is completed, the focus will turn to fixing reliability and scheduling issues, specifically by addressing congestion caused by the interactions between freight and commuter trains along the 15-mile Ayer-to-Fitchburg stretch.

Another hope is that by reworking train schedules, "reverse commuters" could use outbound trains from metro Boston to access work in the western suburbs. Devens Land Use Administrator Peter Lowitt, who hosted the meeting, applauded the MBTA for amending their schedule in December in an initial effort to make such an outbound commute possible and "for seeing the rationality of that move"

The community with the most concerns may be Acton. Double-tracking plans would alter the configuration of the town's South Acton stop, located in a historic district at the end of a rail trail path.

Acton Selectman Peter Barry presented the town's vision for the reworked stop, which stood in opposition to the MBTA's plans. Acton's fears are of a station design that is not in keeping with the historic district and moves the station platform from the northern side of the tracks, when they'd hoped the overhaul would provide southern platform access for commuters.

Barry said his town has also significant concerns over access for the disabled in the MBTA's design, particularly a proposed 600-foot ramp.

The Fitchburg Line meets again in April where the group has several questions to pose directly to MBTA officials about their current and future operations.

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