EXETER — It has been nearly 20 years of passenger train service for Amtrak’s Downeaster connecting Boston to Brunswick, Maine with Seacoast stops in Exeter, Durham, Dover and Wells, Maine.

In that time, more and more passengers from across the greater Seacoast have flocked to Exeter to board the train.

Last year approximately 91,000 passengers boarded or disembarked the Downeaster in Exeter, according to Bob Hall, known to many as Exeter’s "train man." Hall takes it upon himself to help passengers purchase tickets and welcome them to town when they step off the train. He played a key role in the return of passenger rail service to the region, along with his fellow members of Trainriders Northeast.

"We’re the only stop north of Massachusetts that doesn’t have any kind of amenities," Hall said. "How are we going to encourage people to visit if we can’t even provide them restrooms when they get off the train?"

According to Town Manager Russ Dean, Exeter accounts for 80 percent of New Hampshire’s Downeaster ridership, and one possible explanation why its volume of riders dwarf those of Dover and Durham is the fact it’s currently free to park in Exeter’s train station lot. It is one of only four stops along the line that does not charge for parking.

However, that may be changing soon. On July 1, the Select Board heard a preliminary proposal on the framework of a paid parking system for the train station’s lot and its 77 spaces, and members of the board are now saying any system could be extended onto Lincoln Street and possibly the rest of town.

The cost of such a system with installation carries a cost of approximately $10,000 per meter, which issues tickets monitoring 10 parking spots and could require voter approval at a future Town Meeting.

Exeter has an active capital reserve account to fund future station improvements, such as a public restroom and an indoor shelter for colder weather. The account was passed in 2010’s Town Meeting with an allocation of $1,000, but has not received additional funding since, Dean said.

By adding paid parking, the town could begin to collect revenue to fund any improvements to the station, he said.

"The station was reactivated in 2001, and we have a real need to expand our investment in the station for passengers," Dean said. "(In the future) for the lot itself we could contract a plow service for more timely snow removal or we could purchase additional land for parking. There are CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program) grants we can apply for, but they all require matching funds."

Selectwoman Molly Cowan said she supports installing a paid parking system. As a regional director for Emily’s List, she said she takes the Downeaster a couple times a month and changes trains in Boston en route to New York City, which is part of her region and would stand to be affected if the town approved a move to paid parking.

While many commuters leaving from Exeter were upset at the thought of paying for parking in a lot that is virtually at full capacity during weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Cowan said imposing a small parking fee would eventually enhance the experience of passengers at Exeter’s station.

"We don’t just make these decisions in a vacuum," Cowan said. "We have data that practically every other town along the route charges something for parking. If I drive to Boston it’s $48 to park, plus gas. We don’t want to make this burdensome."

Cowan said an improved train station could serve as a gateway to the rest of Exeter for Downeaster riders visiting town.

"By not having some kind of welcome center; there’s a real missed opportunity there," she said. "It definitely needs some bathrooms and a shelter, so those would be my two top priorities."

Hall, who previously opposed charging for parking to encourage ridership on the Downeaster, said he now supports charging a small fee for parking similar to Dover’s train station fee structure, which costs 25 cents per hour, $2.50 per day and $15 per month. However, these rates may be subject to change, as the fees are an agenda item for Dover’s Parking Commission meeting this week.

"The price point needs to stay low," Hall said. "I have no idea what it should start at and that’s a discussion to be had. Maybe Exeter taxpayers get a break when they park, but if we’re only looking at the train station lot, we’re fooling ourselves because we’ll have a spill-out effect on Lincoln, Garfield, Union and School (streets)."

"We’re going through growing pains right now, and the automobile is controlling the flow of traffic and parking in town," he added.

Selectwoman Julie Gilman said if a paid parking system goes into place, she wants to see it be rolled out incrementally so town officials can gauge how successful limited paid parking is in garnering enough revenue to begin upgrading the station property.

"If we’re going to charge, we have to provide more conveniences for commuters," Gilman said. "Right now, we have to see how it plays out."

Selectman Niko Papakonstantis said because Exeter’s Select Board is in the early stages of deliberating whether to make the station paid parking or not; it will likely spur a wider discussion on expanding paid parking to other parts of town.

"I have been a strong proponent of a town-wide parking study. Presently, I am opposed to a parking garage and believe we can improve upon our current parking situation with the assistance of experts in this field," Papakonstantis said. "With regard specifically to the train station lot, I would like to see how other communities handle fees and enforcement, the latter of which will be pivotal if this comes to fruition."

Selectwoman Anne Surman said she wanted to limit the rest of Lincoln Street to two-hour parking, like it is for the 28 spaces in front of the businesses running from the train station along Lincoln Street toward Main Street. She said she is in favor a low rate to start but agreed with Papakonstantis in saying potentially making the train station lot paid parking should only the start of a town-wide review.

She suggested a future system where parking could be free for the first 30 or 60 minutes for people running errands around town, and make parking paid for any additional time, as an example.

"You can’t segregate only one part of town as paid parking and not have paid parking in another part of town," Surman said. "The rate needs to be low because the train is not inexpensive, and we still want to encourage ridership."

Select Board Chairwoman Kathy Corson said at the end of the day it will be Exeter’s voters who decide what, if any, fee structure will be put in place. If it happens to get approved, Corson said she would like to roll it out in a phased approach, starting with the train station lot.

After a lengthy construction project to replace utility lines under Lincoln Street and making sidewalk improvements that negatively impacted businesses while work was ongoing, Corson said the business owners of Lincoln Street should have a seat at the table going forward.

"I think for right now the process needs to be figuring out what will work in that area. I’m concerned for the businesses and what they’ve had to deal with," Corson said. "This is just Phase 1 of dealing with our parking issues."