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CHANNELSIDE GARAGE OPENS IN TIME FOR 4TH

We don't normally get too excited about a new parking garage. But this one is in Channelside, where parking has been a pain since day one and where tens of thousands will converge for Sunday's Fourth of July fireworks.

The Tampa Port Authority opened the garage on Wednesday, adding more than 500 spaces for anyone going to Channelside Bay Plaza, the St. Pete Times Forum and other downtown draws.

The new garage is actually an expansion of the existing parking structure across from the Florida Aquarium. Both have the same entrance and exit off 12th Street.

The expansion has been in the works for a few years as a way to ease parking woes and make room for more cruise ship passengers. In addition to the self-parking spaces, it has 200 valet spots on the ground level and can add more on upper levels during busy cruise times.

As parking structures go, it's pretty attractive. The side facing Channelside Drive is decorated with colorful glass prisms, and the highly visible stairwell is bright orange and lime green.

Visitors should note the new garage uses the same payment system as the existing one. You get a yellow coin chip when you enter, then use it to pay at the automated payment machines and exit the garage. The garage will add 552 self-parking spaces for a total of 1,825 spaces. Parking will cost $1 for 30 minutes, $14 per day for cruise ship parking and $20 if you lose your yellow coin chip.

While many drivers have complained that the system is cumbersome, officials say most have gotten used to it. Over time, it saves money in attendant costs and prevents long lines to exit the garage, especially after concerts and hockey games at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Local business owners welcomed any new parking. The existing garage often fills up during big events, frustrating Channelside customers who can't find a place to park.

Tiffany Davies, a spokeswoman for Splitsville, Stump's Summer Club, Howl at the Moon and Tinatapas, said she hoped the improvements would encourage more Channel District residents to walk to the shops and restaurants. The site of the garage expansion previously was an empty lot with no landscaping or sidewalks.

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