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'A major step forward'

The quest to construct a park and ride facility in Newport took its largest leap forward last week when city officials formally agreed to focus their efforts on the vacant Knox Lumber site as part of a memorandum of understanding with Washington County.

Discussions between officials from the county and city over the planned transit hub -- which transportation planners envision as a stop on the future Red Rock commuter rail line -- have been ongoing since last spring, with Washington County Commissioner Myra Peterson urging Newport leaders to commit to the 11-acre commercial property near the Highway 61/Interstate 494 interchange.

Newport signed on to formally support Washington County's acquisition of the Knox site under the agreement approved by the Newport City Council last week.

Peterson said it represents the greatest advance thus far in the roughly 9-month-old process.

"We'll have to do some other things," Peterson said, "but this is certainly what I consider a major step forward to helping Newport redevelop and plan for the future for a good park and ride."

"Other things" includes actually purchasing the site; Washington County has been negotiating a deal with building materials company Cemstone, which has a letter of intent to purchase the property from its current owners.

Once that is complete, Peterson said, planning on the site would begin in earnest.

Missing from the memorandum is a measure that Newport officials had lobbied hard for: compensation from Washington County for the roughly $10,000 per year the city would lose in property tax revenue if the site is purchased by the county.

Mayor Tim Geraghty had argued it was necessary "to keep the city whole" while it waited for development to occur around the transit station. But Peterson said a deal like that would have "set a bad precedent."

Typically, she said, when the county is going to build a facility, like a new library or county service center, "cities donate the land and we build the building."

Considering the circumstances, "this is probably as good as we're going to get," Geraghty told the city council last week.

Newport included three properties, including the Knox site, as prospective transit center locations in its comprehensive plan update. Some city council members had been reluctant to narrow the planning focus down to Washington County's favored site.

"This reduces it down to one," said Brian Anderson, Newport's city administrator.

Washington County has already been allocated $2.6 million in Counties Transit Improvement Board funding generated by a quarter-percent sales tax in five metro area counties for purchase of the Knox site.

According to the memorandum of understanding agreed to by the county and city, land acquisition this year will be followed by station area planning, environmental assessment and design in 2010-2011.

Construction on the transit station would begin in 2012 and bus service would start from the site in 2012 or 2013.