Four months in, and with a formal grand opening coming up, civic leaders are trying to figure out how to get people to use the new transit station in Newport.
"Just as a short-term fix, we need signs on [Interstate] 494 or Maxwell," said Washington County Commissioner Karla Bigham. "It's not very visible. We need to point people in the direction of where to park 'n' ride: just let people know, 'Hey, it's there!' "
During the winter, it was common to see just a few cars in a sprawling, totally free, 150-space parking lot. Lately, the number has risen slightly; but still …
And what's really too bad, officials say, is that it appears as if quite a few drivers are still using an overloaded lot at Hwy. 61 and Lower Afton Road when they could be saving time by heading to a new facility that barely anyone is using.
"Looking at data on how this corridor functions, it would be a heck of a lot more convenient and would definitely save drive time for a lot of people," said county transportation planner Lyssa Leitner. "We just need to make sure people know about where it is.
"We know there's been a slow pickup," as people remain wedded to long-standing habits, she added. "These projects always are like that."
The facility has been operating since Dec. 1, but has never been formally opened via any sort of event. That changes on April 27, when a roster of elected officials led by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., are scheduled to be on hand for what will also function as an open house.
The 40-acre site between I-494, Hwy. 61 and the Mississippi River seems desolate today. But Newport and the county envision a day when the area will be transformed from "an aging, obsolete industrial and commercial area" into "a thriving, mixed-use, transit-oriented town center, [providing] places to live, shop, work, and play … a new urban center on Newport's west side," according to the Red Rock Corridor Commission.
For the moment, though, the challenge is to gin up some transit use.
"We're hoping publicity from the grand opening itself will help drive additional riders," Bigham said. "We're also pushing for it becoming a park 'n' ride for the State Fair. There's a lot of brainstorming going on: what if we had library lockers there, places where people could drop off and request library books? What about bike rentals? It's near a bike trail.
"Most importantly," she added, "we need to keep the pressure up on Metro Transit to add a route from there to Minneapolis. That's more of a mid-term to long-term goal, but short-term, we need to be handing out fliers at overcapacity park 'n' rides with overflow on the streets, to let people know they do have this option."
As slowly as things have gone so far, Bigham said, she isn't worried.
"I'm excited: it's growing, more people are starting to use it, and as we keep building on that, it will be very successful."