Even if your commuter train to Natick Center arrives on time, it could still take you another five or more minutes to plow through the crowd on a narrow staircase and reach the street.
A new conceptual design for revamping the station is slated to be unveiled at 7 p.m. Thursday at a meeting in Town Hall hosted by local officials and the plan’s authors.
The design seeks to create better accessibility and connectivity to Natick Center businesses and other transit modes. An 800-foot center platform with trains running on either side would be raised so passengers could board a rail car without using its stairs. It would also have multiple access points to the street, including ramps and elevators.
The station now has grade-level platforms — one for trains heading toward Boston, the other for westbound trains — that require passengers to climb stairs to board the cars.
The consultant firm hired by the town, McMahon Associates, will present its conceptual design and findings of a feasibility study on the Natick Station project before taking questions Thursday night.
Town Administrator Martha White said she views the meeting as mostly informational, so that the wider community knows what the project’s advisory committee and its consultants have been accomplishing. The town is also seeking to hear reactions from residents about the design.
“We have had a good group of folks working on it with the consultants. I have a lot of confidence in there being community support for this,” she said.
The $80,000 for the conceptual design was approved by Town Meeting two years ago, but the project’s potential $20 million price tag has no funding support from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Transit agency spokeswoman Kelly Smith said the T’s participation is limited to an advisory role as the project is being prepared for submission to its Capital Investment Program, a rolling five-year plan outlining infrastructure needs and planned investments.
“It will have to compete with other important projects for limited funds available,” Smith said in an e-mail. She said that the Capital Investment Program request cycle for fiscal years 2016 to 2020 has just begun, but the Natick project “is in too early of a stage for those efforts to be initiated yet.”
Nevertheless, the Board of Selectmen’s chairman, Josh Ostroff, who also chairs the project’s advisory committee, said the design work was well worth the money. He said the station’s overhaul would have no shot at state or federal funds if the community didn’t invest its own money first.
“It was thoroughly debated, because some Town Meeting members were of the view that station improvements are the MBTA’s responsibility,” Ostroff said via e-mail. “The prevailing view was that while the MBTA might own the station, they had many competing priorities, and the town was best served by demonstrating local support to get a new station design off the ground. That is a similar approach we take with transportation projects, where the initial funding is local and then the state or feds take over. It is also common with other transit projects that the local city or town provides initial funding.”
One of the residents who spoke against the plan at Town Meeting, Lawrence Forshner said recently that he thinks the $80,000 would have been better spent making the station compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, rather than studying how to do it.
“I’m all for the improvement of downtown and making it a place that’s more inviting; I’m all for that,” Forshner said during a telephone interview, but he still has questions about what the town is getting for its investment in the conceptual design, and about the process for choosing a consulting firm. “What separates the different consultants? How do you pick one over the other? What is delivered for $80,000? That’s what I kind of find wishy washy.”
Ostroff said three firms submitted bids for the project.
“One of the reasons the town hired McMahon was the firm’s track record of having projects funded,” Ostroff said via e-mail. “Part of the deliverable is the development of materials to help support an application for federal funding, so that when the MBTA updates its capital planning schedule, the town is more likely to be considered.”
Christi Apicella of McMahon Associates said the single-platform design provides flexibility for railroad operations because passengers use the same platform whether they are going inbound or outbound.
“A single platform also reduces the capital and operating cost compared to having two platforms,” she said in an e-mail.
Julian Munnich, a Natick Planning Board member for 17 years, said the project is too important to leave it to the MBTA to design. He said the T would produce a boilerplate station.
“For Natick, it’s an integral part of the downtown area,” he said. “On that basis we should take the lead. The important part is that we put down what we require and what our expectations as a community are. . . I have high expectations and I think our demands are not unreasonably high. We do expect something good from this.”
Ultimately the design would have to be approved by selectmen.
“We don’t know when the station will be funded,” Ostroff said in his e-mail, “but with the approval of the Board of Selectmen the town will continue to advocate with state and federal officials and agencies to identify funding sources and refine the proposal.”