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Winchester seeks to end free rail parking

For years, it’s been a well-kept secret among commuters in Winchester, an affluent, leafy suburb less than 10 miles from downtown Boston: free parking at the MBTA commuter rail’s Wedgemere Station.

But Winchester’s parking perk may soon come to an end.

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The town wants to begin charging $5 per day to park at the station as part of a revenue-generating initiative with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which owns a portion of the property.

Town officials said the new charge, which would go into effect Oct. 1, would boost revenue and provide more parking for residents, who complain that out-of-town commuters using the Lowell Line take up all the spaces.

“We’ve been trying to do this for a long time,” Selectman Jim Johnson said. “The town really needs to get in line with what other communities charge for parking. Personally, I think we should have gone up to $6 a day.”

Bill Hickey, a spokesman for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, said the agency is reviewing the proposal. But town officials said they recently were given verbal approval to move ahead with the new charge on an interim basis.

Revenue from the 103 parking spaces at Wedgemere, on Mystic Valley Parkway at Bacon Street, could reach $170,000 a year, to be split between the state and town. The money would be used for maintenance and snow removal at the lot, Johnson said.

Winchester is one of a handful of area towns — including Ipswich and Rockport on the MBTA’s Newburyport-Rockport commuter rail line — that offer free parking to commuters.

Winchester has another MBTA station, in the center of town and less than a mile from Wedgemere, with 237 parking spots, most of which are set aside for residents with a parking permit. The stickers cost about $500 a year, which is paid quarterly. Permit holders also can use other off-street parking facilities in the town’s center.

Wedgemere Station, which dates to the 1850s, recently underwent a $2.2 million renovation that added a wheelchair ramp and other upgrades.

More than 600 travelers a day catch a ride at the train station, according to the MBTA, and commuters get there early to claim one of the spots in its parking lot.

Officials say that on weekdays, the overflow from the lot has vehicles lining Bacon Street, where on-street parking is allowed.

“The station fills up quickly and most people are there for the day,” said Town Manager Richard Howard. “It’s kind of a free-for-all between residents and nonresidents.”

Howard said the town has wanted to charge for parking at the station, but was prevented by the terms of the land-sharing agreement with the state.

He said state officials recently agreed to allow the town to begin charging for parking while the land agreement is renegotiated.

The town will be installing pay stations that take credit cards as part of the changes. Howard said the train station will be festooned with fliers in the next month announcing the pending charge.

“We want to give commuters as much advance notice as we can,” Howard said.

Wedgemere Station’s free parking has been a relatively well-kept secret among commuters. Even some local residents admit they didn’t know about it.

“You have to get here early or there’s no spots,” said Justin Bearden, who comes from his home in Woburn to park at Wedgemere and commute to Boston, where he works as a computer systems analyst. “But it’s free so it’s worth getting up before dawn. It saves me money on commuting. I’d hate to have to pay.

Some Winchester residents complain that they can’t use the parking lot to go into the city for a few hours during the week because it is filled by commuters from other communities.

“They should make it parking by permit, for residents only,” said Marc Wilson, who regularly takes the train from Wedgemere to get to Boston. “I think the town should be charging something. Maybe $5 a day is too much, but something.”

In Ipswich, officials have been debating whether to begin charging for parking at a town-owned lot that serves its Market Street commuter-rail station, which has 170 spaces.

Town Manager Robin Crosbie said roughly half of the lot’s parking spots are used by workers at Ebsco Publishing’s corporate headquarters, one of the town’s largest employers.

Residents and nonresidents are allowed to park in the remaining spaces for free. The town foots the bill for maintaining the lot.

“There are those who want free parking and others who think we should charge,” Crosbie said. “There’s a big concern that charging for parking would drive away business for retail merchants. We haven’t made any decisions at this point.”

Rockport officials, meanwhile, said they have no plans to charge for parking in the town’s 88-space lot near the MBTA station, which is the last stop on the branch line and is used mostly by residents.

“If it were to be considered in the future, we would have to improve the conditions of the area, including solving some existing drainage problems,” said Erin Battistelli, chairwoman of the town’s Board of Selectmen.

In Salem, commuters have been given a reprieve from the $2 per day parking fee for the commuter rail station.

The city has offered 120 free parking spots in a temporary lot on the former site of Universal Steel on Bridge Street while the MBTA station undergoes a $37 million renovationproject that will create 690 parking spaces, an enclosed waiting room, a pedestrian bridge, and other amenities at the facility.

Salem officials haven’t said what the parking rates will be when the new facility opens in October 2014.

Christian M. Wade can be reached at cmwade1969@ gmail.com.
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