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Garages make it a faster race back to the car

Some downtown charges go up after 20 minutes

Drivers pulling into garages in downtown Boston are finding their parking tabs rising faster than ever.

At least seven garages are charging for parking in 20-minute rather than 30-minute increments, and many of them are collecting their all-day rates for periods of less than two hours.

The 75 State Street Garage became the most recent convert, on Jan. 1. The garage had been collecting $6 for a half-hour or less, and $12 for an hour or less. But under its new pricing policy, it charges $6 for 20 minutes or less, $12 for 40 minutes or less, and $19 for the first hour, with the all-day rate of $33 kicking in after one hour and 40 minutes.

Caitlin Whelton of Amesbury, who drove into Boston for a lunch meeting last week, said she noticed the 20-minute pricing as she pulled into the garage.

"It's crazy," she said, "but it was convenient so I pulled in."

Officials at several garages declined to be quoted or did not return phone calls.

Karen Maffucci , general manager of the Friends of Post Office Square, said rates were increased last year at the Garage at Post Office Square. But she said her board decided not to adopt 20-minute pricing out of fairness to customers. She said she was shocked that so many garages have.

"We're in it for the long haul," she said. "We'd rather build our business through customer loyalty."

Getting in and out of a downtown garage in 20 minutes is possible -- but just barely. A Globe reporter managed a 20-minute turnaround at 75 State St. only by racing from the garage to gulp down a drink at a nearby coffee shop and then racing back.

David Rich of Salem, heading down to the 75 State Street Garage in the elevator, said he has made it in and out of the garage in less than 20 minutes, but only if he's dropping something off in the building.

"If it's a normal consumer trying to go to Faneuil Hall or something, I wouldn't think it's possible," Rich said. "I'm used to paying $33. It's ridiculous, but I don't think it's unusual for the city."

It's no wonder metered parking spaces in Boston are in such high demand. City meters charge 25 cents for 15 minutes, or $2 for two hours. The fine for parking at an expired meter is $25, although additional tickets can be issued if the car is not moved after another two hours.

Boston parking garage rates are among the highest in the nation. A 2006 report from Colliers International Property Consultants Inc., a real estate services firm, indicated the median daily parking rate in Boston was $31, down $1 from the year before.

Only the midtown and downtown areas of New York City had higher parking garage rates. The midtown median rate in New York was $40, while the downtown median was $32.

The average nationally was $15.28, up from $14.04 the year before.

The Colliers report focuses on the daily parking rate, but not on how quickly it gets charged. In Boston, that time has been shrinking at many garages.

Four years ago, a Globe survey indicated the garage at 75-101 Federal St. was charging $11 for the first hour of parking and collecting its all-day rate of $36 after three hours.

Today, the garage charges the same all-day rate, but collects it in nearly half the time, one hour and 40 minutes. The garage charges $6 for the first 20 minutes of parking, $13 for 40 minutes or less, and $20 for the first hour.

The Government Center Garage four years ago was charging $10 for the first hour, with gradual increases for subsequent hours, hitting the maximum of $28 after 12 hours. Today, the garage charges $15 for the first hour, and the all-day rate of $32 kicks in after three hours.

By contrast, rates at the Pi Alley Garage on Washington Street are the same today as they were four years ago: $14 for the first hour, followed by gradual increases, with an all-day rate of $35 that starts after 12 hours.

Parking rates are high in Boston because demand for parking spaces is strong and the supply of spaces is limited. The Environmental Protection Agency has capped the number of parking spaces at downtown garages and lots at 35,303, to encourage commuters to leave their cars at home.

Parking garage demand is often gauged by the health of the commercial real estate market. In a recent report, the commercial brokerage firm Jones Lang LaSalle forecast a strong Boston market in 2007, with rising rents, high occupancy growth, and decreasing availability of office space.

The best deals on parking in Boston are available at the Boston Common Garage and at the state Transportation Building. The Common Garage charges $6 for the first hour, followed by gradual increases, with the maximum rate of $25 kicking in after 12 hours. The garage in the Transportation Building charges $5 for the first hour and $14 for two hours or more.

The surface lots along Northern Avenue, near the developing South Boston Waterfront, charge a flat $9 fee for any period from 5 a.m. to midnight. The 24-hour parking rate is $18.

The absolute best parking deal in the city is at First Federal Parking in Winthrop Square. The rundown garage, under terms of a city lease, charges $4.15 for the first two hours, $1.60 for the third hour, and 85 cents for each additional hour. The garage fills up quickly each morning, and there are often cars idling outside, waiting for someone to leave.

But the garage's days, and the low prices it offers, are numbered. Mayor Thomas M. Menino last year proposed a 1,000-foot skyscraper on the site, and in late January businessman Steve Belkin was designated by the Boston Redevelopment Authority to build Boston's tallest building.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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