Light-rail stations are much more than platforms.

To cities, they're anchors within the community. They're triggers for economic development. Done right, they can even help deliver federal funds.

So, while construction of the Southwest Transitway light-rail line is, by optimistic estimates, at least four years away, cities along its route -- St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie -- are already planning its stations.

For more than a year, Hopkins and Hennepin County have studied the what, where and why of Hopkins' three light-rail stops. They'll explain their findings, as detailed in a 31-page report, to citizens at a meeting tonight.

The three stops are to be located, from east to west, on Blake Road, on Excelsior Boulevard near downtown, and east of Shady Oak Road.

At the study's start, Hopkins officials had hoped that the light-rail line could "move off the designated rail corridor," which follows an old railroad right of way, and instead take a route "throughout downtown Hopkins along Mainstreet," the study says.

Soon, however, it became clear that the downtown route would be "pretty difficult," said Steve Stadler, Hopkins' public works director.

"You've got historic buildings in there and they're only so far apart," Stadler said.

Now, the report recommends connectors from the light-rail stop on Excelsior Boulevard along 8th Avenue to Mainstreet -- a boulevard, perhaps with a trolley line.

It's all part of a larger vision for the stations, said Katie Walker, transit project manager for Hennepin County. "We don't want all of these stations to be big park-and-ride lots," she said, emphasizing the importance of mixed-use development surrounding the sites.

'A neighborhood station'

Hopkins' downtown stop should be more of a "neighborhood station," where people might stop to shop, Walker said. On the west end of the line, the last station, likely to be located near Mitchell Road and Hwy. 5 in Eden Prairie, will require extensive parking for commuters.

The Hopkins study outlines where the stations' parking lots will be located, as well as development opportunities around them. For example, the station east of Shady Oak Road might feature parking structures with 280 spots, "screened from new streets by mixed-use development."

Such "transit-oriented development" can help convince the federal government to provide funding, Walker said.

"They want to see how well your line would perform in terms of ridership, if it's cost-effective, things like that. But encouraging more intense development around station locations -- that's huge."

Other cities

St. Louis Park has been preparing for its light-rail stops for years.

Five years ago, the city conducted a study of the Elmwood neighborhood, where its Wooddale stop likely will be located, near Hwy. 100.

The resulting development, Walker said, represents "the best example" of what should surround a station -- for instance, Hoigaard Village, an 80-acre, 400-unit residential and retail project near 36th Street and Hwy. 100.

The city was "feeling a lot of pressure for redevelopment and wanted to get their ducks in a row," Walker said. "They understood that if light-rail came there, if it was part of the equation, there would probably need to be a different type of development."

Eden Prairie has fought to bring the route through its central business district -- and off the rail line it follows most of the way. The city passed a resolution supporting that route, which would pass by the Opus Northwest headquarters in Minnetonka and near Eden Prairie Center, and many, including the transitway's policy advisory committee, have agreed. That is now the transitway's "preferred route."

"There's much greater potential development with a route through those areas," said Randy Newton, traffic engineer with Eden Prairie.

He acknowledged that obtaining land for the line, the stations and the development might be more difficult than if the route ran along the railroad line -- land that the county already owns.

Eden Prairie has not yet studied specific station sites, but will participate when the county soon takes a more comprehensive look at the light-rail stations and their impact on traffic and nearby properties.

At the same time, officials are requesting $10 million in bond funding from the Minnesota Legislature to continue study of the Southwest Transitway, which would include preparing environmental impact statements.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168