SALEM — There were a lot of tugs of war going on at last night's public meeting on the MBTA's proposed $31.8 million commuter rail station and parking garage for Salem.
Although handcuffed by a limited budget, MBTA officials said they will try to design a station that reflects the city's wishes.
But what does Salem want?
Should it be a basic concrete garage, or should it have brick and other design elements, possibly a maritime theme, that reflect the historic downtown?
Does the appearance of the structure matter more, or is it more important to have station amenities that make the experience more pleasant for commuters, like a heated waiting room and weather-protective canopies?
And who, ultimately, is the new station being built for: motorists or pedestrians?
That last debate took on a life of its own as residents who live in the McIntire Historic District and other areas near the station stressed the importance of building a facility for the riders who come on foot, while city leaders emphasized the need for a station with a larger garage that can accommodate more cars.
Darrow Lebovici, a Federal Street resident, said two-thirds of the commuters at the Salem station, one of the busiest in the MBTA system, come on foot or by bike. So why isn't the station being designed more with them in mind?
"We're spending 30 times the amount or more on cars as people," he complained. "Change the ratio."
Two city officials answered back.
"I sit here somewhat shocked, hearing people say, 'Oh, leave it the way it is, don't worry about the extra deck,'" said Mayor Kim Driscoll, who is lobbying for a fifth level to a structure currently planned to have four decks for 550 cars.
"I'm worried about the future growth," she said.
Patricia Zaido, executive director of the Salem Partnership, a business-city lobby that has pushed for a garage for more than a decade, also weighed in.
"We want more people to take public transportation, so we need them to have a place to park their cars," she said.
Although the MBTA currently has money only for four decks, a T official announced last night that a formal request has been made for an additional $5 million to add a deck and expand the parking to 710 parking spaces. But nobody is counting on those extra funds or parking spaces.
"Four levels is the only project we believe is likely to be built," said Jonathan McCredie, an outside consultant and the project's chief architect.
The parking space debate is a complicated one. Right now, there are 340 spaces on the MBTA's section of the commuter rail station. The city has a smaller adjacent area with 120 spaces that is not part of this project.
One person in the crowd of 75 at Carlton School asked why the two properties can't be combined into one large project.
There is a railroad right of way that runs between them that would take an "act of Congress" to remove, Driscoll said.
As for the immediate future, the message was full speed ahead. This project, while scaled back dramatically from the $45 million facility once envisioned, is definitely going to get built, officials said.
Under the current schedule, work will begin next spring and the station will open in the fall of 2014.
"We're going to keep the project moving," said George Doherty, the MBTA project manager. "Our intent is to get the project completed as quickly as we can."
The MBTA expects to have preliminary designs ready by a June 12 meeting.