Buses, not commuter trains, might be emerging as the better future transit option linking St. Paul and Hastings as planners take a second look.

Construction is expected to begin this summer in Newport on the first of four transit stations in the Red Rock Corridor — which runs mostly parallel along Hwy. 61 before bending west along Interstate 94 to St. Paul's Union Depot transit hub.

Those four Red Rock Corridor transit stations, to be situated in Hastings, Cottage Grove and at Lower Afton Road in Maplewood, will initially serve as park-and-ride express bus stops. A 2007 analysis of transit alternatives had settled on adding a commuter rail line as the long-term future transit choice.

But a lot has changed in the past six years, and the gears appear to be shifting.

With so many millions of dollars, and the future of east-metro transit, at stake, it's important to get it right, said Washington County Commissioner Autumn Lehrke, who also is chairwoman of the Red Rock Corridor Commission, which is overseeing that planning.

At a public workshop in St. Paul Park last week, the first of many sessions this year seeking comment from communities along the corridor, those changing assumptions were at the forefront of discussion.

For Lehrke, it's looking more like bus-rapid transit (BRT) is a better way to go. It's the same conclusion drawn by planners of the Gateway Corridor, the east-west transit link in Washington County connecting St. Paul and the east metro along I-94, although light-rail is still under consideration for that route.

With BRT, buses run in their own lanes with minimal stops — it's been described as light-rail on wheels. Commuter trains like those envisioned for the Red Rock Corridor, in contrast to light-rail, are typically larger and only run during morning and evening rush hours.

As public transit has developed across the Twin Cities, the lessons learned are helping shape better planning, Lehrke said. "Let's look at the data, and make data-driven decisions," she said.

One such object lesson is the Northstar Commuter Rail connecting Minneapolis and Big Lake, which has struggled with operating costs and attracting riders.

Other factors since 2007 have also changed, Lehrke added: the first BRT line in the Twin Cities, along Cedar Avenue linking Apple Valley and Bloomington, comes online in late spring — offering a test case for similar systems that follow; the 2010 census offers new data on the transit market; there have been massive upgrades to Hwy. 61, including a new bridge being built over the Mississippi River at Hastings, that will change traveling patterns; and a massive study of railroad traffic in the east metro that raised serious concerns about adding more passenger lines to an already stressed freight rail system.

And there's the human factor, she said.

"When I was running for office, knocking on doors and talking to people about commuter rail, and they were expressing a lot of concerns the more they learned about it," she said. Those included high operating costs and the limiting of service to just two peak times a day. It was estimated six years ago that commuter rail would cost $366 million, and take years before coming on line.

"People want to be able to get to Twins games, they want that flexibility of all-day service," Lehrke said of BRT's advantages — which also include being half as costly as light-rail. "They want to take advantage of BRT service for those recreational opportunities, and it should be available to people who work any shift — not just the first shift. And they don't want a system 20 years from now, they want something sooner than that."

As that planning moves forward, the reality of changes in the Red Rock Corridor is already taking shape. The Newport transit station will likely be open by November, said Andy Gitzlaff, senior planner for Washington County.

It will be built on the site of the former Knox Lumber Yard on Maxwell Avenue near the Interstate 694/Hwy. 61 interchange. A 200-stall park-and ride surface are part of the initial plans, but a larger retail and residential development around the station is envisioned in the future.

Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039

Twitter: @StribJAnderson