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Newport Transit Station construction under way

Dirt was turned at the future Newport Transit Station site during a ceremonial groundbreaking on Monday, Nov. 25. Pictured (from left) are state Sen. Katie Sieben, state Rep. Dan Schoen, Newport Mayor Tim Geraghty, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Newport City Council members Tom Ingemann, Steven Gallagher and Tracy Rahm, and Newport City Administrator Deb Hill. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)

A section of the dilapidated parking lot at the vacant Knox Lumber site in Newport was removed Monday, making way for a groundbreaking ceremony years in the making.

State and local elected officials, as well as a handful of area residents, gathered at the future site of the Newport Transit Station on Maxwell Avenue to mark the next stage of the city’s transportation transformation.

“For years I’ve been saying that I wanted something to go here,” Newport Mayor Tim Geraghty said. “That day is finally here. This is exciting and we are ready to transform Newport.”

Touted as a critical stop in the 30-mile Red Rock Corridor, the $6.2 million Newport Transit Station will be one of four planned stops along the route stretching from Hastings to downtown St. Paul.

Last month, the Washington County Board signed off on a $1.3 million construction contract which includes demolition of the former lumber yard, grading, utilities, paving, landscaping and irrigation.

Design specs, which Washington County Senior Planner Andy Gitzlaff said were scaled back in an effort to stay on budget, include a 150-stall parking lot, previously 200, with an open green space concept. A partially covered canopy will shelter commuters and amenities such as a library book kiosk and bike racks are proposed to be installed. LED lighting and signage is also expected to be part of the plan.

“We want this to be a safe and inviting,” said Washington County Commissioner Autumn Lehrke, who emceed the event.

The transit station is also expected to be a connector to the regional Mississippi River Trail, a bike and recreation trail.

Once construction is complete, which is expected to be October 2014, commuters will use the existing express bus route 364 which currently stops at several locations in Cottage Grove, Newport and St. Paul Park. The route only runs during peak hours in the morning and evening and will continue to do so.

Spearheaded by the Red Rock Corridor Commission, the project partnered Washington County with the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) for partial funding of construction.

“People need to understand that this is important and realize this is where the future of the economy is,” CTIB Chair Peter McLaughlin said, who also spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony. “We are laying the transit backbone with the intent to knit the Twin Cities together.”

The regional coalition funds metro-area transit projects through a dedicated quarter-cent sales tax.

The total cost budgeted for construction tops $2.4 million, with other funding coming from federal grants, state bonds and the Regional Railroad Authority levy.

With the future transit station situated on property adjacent to the Interstate 494 and Highway 61 interchange, officials said the proximity to high volumes of traffic is a key factor to future development.

“This significant regional project is designed with flexibility in mind and will be an asset to our community,” Lehrke said. “This is the kickstart to broader transit development.”