To encourage ridership and foster station area development for the proposed southwest light rail line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, Hennepin County plans to spend up to $500,000 for "station area action plans."

The 15-mile light rail line, which is awaiting federal approval to begin preliminary engineering, has 17 designated stations in Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Minnetonka, Hopkins and Eden Prairie.

Action plans for each station would choose the best placement for the station and outline infrastructure improvements including roads, sidewalks, parking lots and streetscapes that would "enhance existing businesses, support a full range of housing opportunities and encourage development," the county said in an advertisement for the work posted last week.

The idea is to build infrastructure improvements and the rail line at the same time to save money and to make each station a unique place that relates well to the whole corridor, the county said.

Such planning was not done for the Hiawatha light rail line, leaving development to fill in where it could, said Phil Eckhert, director of housing, community works and transit for Hennepin County.

Planning ahead this way will allow light-rail engineers to work with station planners to position a station platform to better suit riders or development, Eckhert said.

Proposals from planning firms competing for the contract must be submitted by Sept. 9. A consultant is scheduled to be selected in late September or early October. The station area action plans are required to be completed within nine months of the contract award.

The proposed southwest light rail project is awaiting a decision -- expected this year -- from the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) about whether the rail line may move into preliminary engineering.

Preliminary engineering would take about two years and finish about 30 percent of the design for the rail line. That work would produce refined cost estimates, completed station design and firmed-up project benefits and impacts.

The FTA will use information from the preliminary engineering to decide whether to commit federal matching funds to the project, which is estimated to cost more than $1 billion. If approved for final design, the southwest line would be slated to start construction in 2014 and begin service in late 2017 or early 2018.

Heavy usage projected

Its projected weekday ridership of nearly 30,000 people by 2030 is comparable to the Hiawatha Line now, according to the Metropolitan Council, which oversees the project.

Cities along the proposed rail line -- Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie -- already are working on station area plans that would be coordinated with the findings of the larger county station action plan study.

In Hopkins, the city has changed zoning around its station areas to promote mixed-use, higher density development.

"Mixed-use zoning is really based on trying to get as many different uses as possible so it's supporting the transit and it's walkable," said Kersten Elverum, Hopkins director of planning and development.

Minnetonka is about to adopt an interim use ordinance to avoid unwanted station area development while the county planning is underway.

Finding that properties at its three station areas are aging and "ripe for development," Minnetonka wants to give owners of property around stations clear guidance, said Community Development Director Julie Wischnack.

"We want people to be able to utilize their property while we wait for the light rail to be built, but if they are doing things, they need to be complementary or they need to go away before the light rail comes in," she said.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711