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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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