A commuter rail line between downtown St. Paul and Hastings could be up and running by 2018 Washington County transportation planners said last week, the first time officials have affixed such an early date to the project.

The assessment is "optimistic," county planner Andy Gitzlaff conceded, and is dependent on a number of factors, including which high-speed rail route the state chooses and how successful local advocates are in placing the Red Rock commuter rail route next in the construction queue.

If Minnesota rail planners choose the River Route -- a track that would run high-speed rail from Chicago to St. Paul along the Mississippi River through south Washington County -- favored by local officials, southeast metro commuter rail efforts would receive a huge boost, officials say, toward meeting that 2018 date.

The 2018 timeline offered last week "is a conceptual date at this point," Gitzlaff said. "We've been aware that high-speed (rail), if it does come up the River Route, that can really accelerate Red Rock."

The Northstar Line, from Minneapolis to Big Lake, that opened in November is the Twin Cities' first commuter rail line. Gitzlaff said local officials are watching Northstar, judging its success and making note of ridership numbers to help update Red Rock projections.

Next up is likely a line through the southwest suburbs that is further along in planning, Gitzlaff said.

But, "we're going to be trying to make sure Red Rock is next," he said.

Officials have ramped up their efforts to sell the proposed route to curious would-be train commuters, unveiling a new Web site last month as station area planning begins for each stop -- including stations in Cottage Grove and Newport -- along the planned line.

There is a "lack of understanding ... but a general enthusiasm" about the Red Rock line, Gitzlaff said.