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Officials debate site of park and ride lot

The future of the Red Rock commuter corridor and growth in Newport intersect, officials say. But where?

A growing demand for express bus service to St. Paul and Minneapolis and an influx in state and federal dollars means southeast metro commuters could soon be able to park and ride from Newport, a now-neglected stretch between transit lots along Highway 61 in Cottage Grove and St. Paul.

County and state transit advocates favor one location, which a recent Red Rock Corridor study focused on: the old Knox Lumber site, situated off Maxwell Avenue at the busy confluence of Highway 61 and Interstate 494.

But that location is Newport's crown redevelopment jewel, a parcel city officials for years have envisioned as a bustling commercial center and large tax base booster. Some are unsure what a transit center would mean for those plans.

Perfect locale

Washington County Commissioner and Red Rock Corridor Commission chair Myra Peterson says the 11-acre site represents the perfect locale for a Newport transit hub -- home to an eventual Red Rock commuter rail line station, a park and ride, and easy access to bus lines on Highway 61 and Interstate 494.

And, she said, a transit hub would make the site an even more attractive commercial area.

Don't rule out other sites

Newport Mayor Tim Geraghty says the cracked pavement and vacant building that used to house the now-defunct home improvement retailer represents Newport's most attractive redevelopment option. An alternate site farther south on 61, he said, could draw more commuters to Newport businesses.

"I just don't want to rule (other sites) out," Geraghty said.

Peterson said a meeting between Red Rock Corridor Commission members and the new Newport City Council is in the works. The dialogue is important, she says, because the faster a new southeast metro park and ride is in place, the easier it will be for suburban commuters to utilize mass transit options.

The easier and the faster the options are there, officials say, the better.

"If we're going to start to build ridership along the line, I think it's important to get a transit station up and running," said state Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove.

Funding demands action

Sieben has co-authored a bill in the Senate that would appropriate money and issue state bonds to cover the costs of constructing new park and ride lots along the Red Rock corridor and studying an extension of the corridor from Hastings to Red Wing.

Nearly $500,000 in federal funding, included in the recently passed omnibus spending bill approved by Congress, will advance the push for a Newport park and ride lot.

Geraghty said the city hasn't felt pressure from legislators or transit officials to move quickly on deciding where to locate a transit hub. The pressure, councilmember Corb Hopkins says, is financial.

"Immediate money," he said, "demands immediate attention."

More analysis should be completed on other possible transit sites, Geraghty said, before a decision is made. A recently completed, still-unpublished study on the Red Rock corridor focused exclusively on the Knox site, he said.

He'd like to see the same attention paid to his favored location, the Veolia Environmental Services site on Seventh Avenue near the Glen Road interchange.

That site, he says, would pull commuters farther into Newport and -- located just across Highway 61 from the city's main commercial district -- could be more beneficial to businesses.

But Peterson said last week she believes commuters from south Woodbury would be more inclined to use a park and ride located just off Interstate 494 than one farther south.

"Speaking as a transit advocate I look at that site as being highly desirable," Peterson said. "Is there another site? Probably. Would it be as useful? Probably not."