A proposed commuter rail network that would help link transit through the entire metro area gained speed Thursday with a commission's green light for four new transit stops in the southeast suburbs.

In Newport, where the gateway to the Red Rock Corridor is envisioned, city officials anticipate that plans for a transit station will reshape development of housing and commerce in the near term as well as the decades afterward.

One station, planned for an overgrown 11-acre site where Knox Lumber once operated, is envisioned as the heart of Newport's redevelopment, with a blend of housing, retail and commercial building.

"To say, 'OK, let's turn it into a transit-oriented development and then try to scale everything around there to match' was a big leap for the small city of Newport," said City Council Member Stephen Gallagher. "So we're really hoping that will spur development along there."

When complete, the commuter rail line will run 30 miles from downtown Minneapolis, through St. Paul and south to Hastings.

To build ridership to support a future commuter rail service, a new park-and-ride is being built in Newport and options to expand bus service to the southeast metro are being explored, said Andy Gitzlaff of the Washington County Regional Railroad Authority.

Newport is a Mississippi River community of 3,850 people along Hwy. 61, an increasingly congested north-south route.

City leaders are using the transit station as a catalyst for Newport's first redevelopment in 20 years, said Mayor Tim Geraghty.

Situated where Hwy. 61, Interstate 494 and the corridor converge, Newport would be a great site for developers once the economy turns around, said Gallagher, who serves on the Red Rock Corridor Commission, a board of elected officials from Washington, Dakota, Ramsey and Hennepin counties.

Newport officials envision high-density housing, retail stores and offices around the station, a stacked parking ramp with rooftop garden and the city's first marina on the Mississippi, the mayor said.

The plans come as Minnesota communities look for ways to recover from dwindling state aid and an ailing economy.

"The Minneapolis-St. Paul region is a national focal point right now for strengthening the linkages between transit, housing and economic development," said Laurie McGinnis, director at the University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies.

"Partners from all over the region came together to successfully compete last year for funds that enable the region to promote vibrant, sustainable communities using the region's transitway system as a development focus."

In addition to Newport, transit stops are planned for Cottage Grove, St. Paul near Lower Afton Road, and Hastings, which currently has no transit links to downtown St. Paul or Minneapolis.

Currently, park-and-ride lots in Cottage Grove and Lower Afton Road in St. Paul enable riders to hop express buses to downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis, and to the University of Minnesota. But those lots are already filled to capacity, Gallagher said.

Following a national trend

In Newport, officials say they're excited about the potential to transform their city.

The size and design of the recently built Wakota Bridge and improved Hwy. 61, along with rights of way and sound walls, have split the city in half and reduced visibility to businesses, which have suffered, Gallagher said.

While the region benefited from that design, Newport lost part of its tax base to highways and has been left with only one highway access point, Glen Road, and the challenge of trying to unite the city and recover.

Working with a $69,350 planning grant from the Metropolitan Council, Newport is climbing aboard a national trend: creating entire mixed-use communities around transit hubs. That replaces the old suburban model of building houses in one part of the city and commerce in another, assuming people would drive almost everywhere.

"It is something that we've seen around the country taking hold as the real estate market demands a new type of development," said Sam Zimbabwe, director of the nonprofit Center for Transit-Oriented Development at Reconnecting America.

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038