The four suburban cities along the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit line from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis are focused on making the most of the opportunity to spur development that could make their communities more walkable and green.

St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie all are making plans for new housing and businesses to take root around light-rail stations that have already been sited in their towns.

And though the proposed 14-mile line is still years from reality -- 2015 at the earliest -- all four of the suburban communities are readily envisioning the benefits.

"Overall, we see it as a great improvement to the quality of life for Hopkins residents,'' said Kersten Elverum, the city's director of planning and economic development.

"People are just so excited about the opportunity to use light rail to get downtown. We see it as one more reason that Hopkins is unique and really well positioned to be a livable, walkable, great place to live into the future,'' Elverum said.

Light rail has the potential, she said, to "make Hopkins more of a destination than it already is.''

A key challenge for the city will be making a pleasant stroll out of the short hike between the downtown light-rail station on 8th Street and the shops, restaurants and entertainment that already exist on Hopkins' Mainstreet, Elverum said. "It's only two blocks, but that can be a long distance if it's not enjoyable.''

St. Louis Park is likewise upbeat. "We're very excited about the prospects of light rail transit,'' said Community Development Director Kevin Locke.

New pedestrian-oriented housing has already sprung up in the city's Elmwood neighborhood because the Wooddale Avenue light-rail station site is nearby, he said.

Having a way for residents to depend less on cars will boost St. Louis Park's efforts to go green, he said.

"We are expecting that a number of people will walk or bike to the stations,'' Locke said. "Transit-oriented development around the stations means people would be less dependent on cars.''

Minnetonka has high hopes for the Shady Oak Station area near the Opus Center. About 7,000 people work there now, and an additional 4,000 employees are expected by 2030.

Light rail will be a magnet for new housing and businesses around the station, said Minnetonka Community Development Director Julie Wischnack. "What it does for us is open up redevelopment opportunities and adds to the employment area that Opus draws from.''

Eden Prairie -- with the potential for five stations -- is counting on light rail to serve several higher-density employment and residential areas and attract new business and housing, said Community Development Director Janet Jeremiah. "It's an attraction for corporations, particularly high-tech businesses, and increasingly from a residential perspective as well.''

Eden Prairie prefers a route through its Golden Triangle business area, and the city is working with property owners to keep that route open for the rail line.

To be eligible for 50 percent federal funding and to open as proposed between 2015 and 2017, the rail project will have to meet federal cost and ridership requirements and be listed as a priority by the Metropolitan Council.

In September, work began on a draft environmental impact statement for the line. Between January and next summer, Hennepin County, which is leading the study, will consider environmental effects that will help it arrive at a recommended route.

Through St. Louis Park and Hopkins, the route is fairly set, but questions remain about the route at either end of the line.

In Eden Prairie, the route through the Golden Triangle is preferred, but the next step is to make sure it has no impediments to rail construction, said Katie Walker, director of the study for the county.

On the other end of the line, debate continues about how to route the line from the suburbs into downtown Minneapolis.

The schedule calls for a route to be selected next spring or summer and the draft environmental impact statement to be finished by the end of 2009, with preliminary engineering to follow in 2010, Walker said.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711