SALEM — Few people get excited when they talk about construction of a new parking garage, but for Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, July 20 cannot come soon enough.
That is when work will begin on a new $37 million, 690-space, five-story parking garage that will replace the current 460-space MBTA commuter rail parking lot in Salem. The work is expected to take 15 months to complete, with the garage opening in October 2014.
For Driscoll, the project is another capital improvement that she believes will help boost the city’s downtown economy. Since 1989, city officials have envisioned a new station at the lot. But in 2008, Driscoll stepped up her lobbying effort to land funds for the garage, sending a petition signed by 1,000 commuters to Governor Deval Patrick while also creating a committee that included representatives of the MBTA and the Executive Office of Transportation.
“It was a priority for me,” said Driscoll. “You have a busy train station and a growing downtown, and transportation is a major part of why people are moving here. We need a more civilized way for commuters to get to and from work.”
Added MBTA general manager Beverly Scott: “The commencement of work on improvements to the Salem commuter rail station is a welcome milestone in bringing better service and improved amenities to one of the busiest stations in the system. I’m looking forward to seeing the progress made in the coming months.”
While Driscoll also looks forward to the station’s new amenities, such as improved handicapped access, an elevated platform, and a heated waiting room in the garage, she acknowledged that commuters will face a parking crunch beginning on July 20. With the lot closing, commuters will have to seek out other parking alternatives. The city is building a temporary, 120-car lot about one-third of a mile from the station on the former Universal Steel property, but that is not expected to open until mid-August. When it opens in August, parking will be free for commuters.
Until then, commuters who want to travel by train to Boston will face an even tougher time finding a spot in the already competitive early-morning race for spaces. Since 1987, the station along Bridge Street, next to the North River, has been filled most mornings by 8 o’clock. By mid-morning, commuters’ cars line Bridge Street and other downtown roads where people can park all day.
With Beverly closing its T parking lot at the Beverly Depot in order to build a new $34 million, 500-car parking garage, commuter parking in Salem has become even more difficult in recent months with Beverly commuters seeking spaces in Salem.
Driscoll said people should consider walking to the station, taking the Salem Ferry to Boston’s Long Wharf, or parking in downtown municipal lots.
“The construction is going to be disruptive but it’ll be worth it in the long run,” she said.
Eric Weiss of Beverly has been parking in Salem since work began on the new Beverly garage, and he has just learned about Salem’s planned garage.
“It’s a problem for commuters, but it sounds like their long-term goal is a good one,” said Weiss, who has yet to decide what he will do come July 20. One option he is considering is to drive to Medford’s Wellington Station and take the subway to Boston.
Karen O’Malley of Salem said he plans to walk as much as she can to the station during the next year, and will park, when necessary, downtown.
The disruptions notwithstanding, the station, which sits on a triangular-shaped, 5.7-acre property, is badly in need of improvements.
While it is the busiest station on the Newburyport/Rockport Line with about 2,400 riders on weekdays, it lacks simple amenities.
Driscoll calls it the “coldest place in America to wait for a train.” At a station where 31 trains and 16 buses arrive each day, there are no indoor waiting areas — just three covered outdoor shelters, including a rickety wooden structure where those using wheelchairs must wheel up a long ramp to access the train.
On a recent day a group of commuters and tourists sought refuge under a roof by the platform.
“I wouldn’t mind a little heat in the winter,” said Anya Smolnikova of Boston.
A few benches away, Al King, called the rutted lot “the worst T stop in the state.” He endorsed the project and said he would come to Salem from Boston more often after the new station is built.
“That’s a lot of money to build it, but I’d come up and use the garage,” he said.Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.