Dr. Gridlock Tackles Your Traffic and Transit Issues
Monday, July 27, 2009; 12:00 PM
Robert Thomson is The Washington Post's Dr. Gridlock. He was online Monday, July 27, at Noon ET to diagnose all of your traffic and transit issues.
Robert Thomson: Hello, travelers, and thanks for joining me. We will tackle both the immediate and the eternal questions in traffic and transit today.
Upper Marlboro: Now that both loops of the Beltway are finally paved at the Arena Drive Project, when are the ramps going to finally open? All of the striping on Arena Drive is complete, but the ramps are still closed and the traffic signals are still covered up. There is a Paul McCartney concert at FedEx Field this coming Saturday night and that would be a good test for the new traffic pattern.
Robert Thomson: I'll check on whether the Arena Drive ramps will be open for the Saturday night concert. The interchange was always allowed to open for special events. That wasn't the issue concerning the reconstruction, which is scheduled to be complete in the fall.
The issue was opening the interchange to traffic at all times, and that could only be accomplished by making safety improvements along the stretch of entrances and exits at Landover Road, Arena Drive and Central Avenue. That's the reason for the new collector/distributor lanes on both loops of the Beltway.
I find the current setup there a bit confusing for through traffic, but understand that the State Highway Administration is going to add some signs to help. My problem is with signs that say "Exit Only" approaching Landover Road. The sign has two arrows, as though the two lanes beneath it were exit only. That's not the case. Drivers still have a total of four lanes that go through. Three are to the left of the solid white line and one is to the right.
Washington, D.C.: Hello Dr. Gridlock,
I remember a few years ago when Metro was testing various different car arrangements(of seats, poles, handles, etc.) to see which was most effective. Do you know if there there ever was any conclusion to that study? The different experimental layouts are still found around the system, and clearly no effort was made to chose one and renovate the old cars.
I ride the Red Line every day, and am very understanding of Metro's plight (I grew up here but go to college in LA--trust me, the Metro on a bad day is still such an incredible asset to this city). But since the crash, the packed stations and trains have given me a new appreciation for every extra inch of floor and hand hold available (i.e. one fewer armpit in my face). Could this finally be the excuse to change the cars? Personally I'm partial to the setup with no seats and vertical poles by the doors, but dual horizontal and vertical poles down the aisles with metal pull-down handles--this seems to best encourage people to fill up the aisles...
Robert Thomson: I agree about Metro's value to this region. Easy thing to forget.
Metro is not planning any radical changes in the cars. The transit authority decided against the most extreme thing of using benches down the side. Turned out it didn't add capacity.
I like the 6000 Series, the newest cars, despite the problem shorter people -- like the Grid Spouse -- continue to tell me about. People have trouble getting a grip as they get near the doors.
Washington, D.C.: I came back to the office after two weeks in England only to find that the situation with Metro has improved marginally, if at all. My train at around 7 a.m. from Union Station, which before the accident was often half empty, was jammed this morning. How long is it going to take for the system to get back to some semblance of normalcy? Given that it's been about 5 weeks since the accident, I wonder if it ever will be.
It's a tremendous contrast to the UK, where I didn't have to wait more than 5 minutes for a clean, well operated bus to take me on the 40 minute ride from Heathrow to Oxford for the bargain price of 10 pounds. (The over 60 fare.)
Robert Thomson: I have no idea when the Metro system will get back to normal. I doubt anyone at Metro does either. The transit authority is doing a bunch of safety checks that it didn't do before the June 22 crash on the Red Line.
The safety rules are especially tight on the Red Line, so that's the one where people experience slowdowns most often and -- judging by my mailbag -- where the riders are the most frustrated. But all the lines are affected by new rules concerning the status of track circuits.
Investigators don't know what caused the crash. Until they do, there are limits on what Metro can tell us. That said, I think Metro could do a much better job of helping riders with their day to day travels during this crisis.
metro commuter: I would love to see a weekly quiz on Dr Gridlock's topics. Like "Who are the worst drivers: D.C., Md., Va."?
Robert Thomson: I like that idea. I'm interpreting it as something I could post each week on the Get There blog. Then maybe I could figure out a way to publish responses with one of my newspaper columns, as well as online.
Tell me some other topics you'd like to see covered in such surveys.
San Francisco, Calif.: Dr. G -
Long time reader, first time poster. I'm hopefully moving back to the area (I've been gone for 4 years) for a job in Bethesda, Md. (270/495 intersections).
I'll be purchasing a house somewhere in Virginia - and of course most of the places in my price range are going to be out Rt. 7 (Sterling), 267 (Herndon/Reston), or 66 (Fair Oaks/Fairfax, etc.).
Am I nutty to live that far out with the commute? It'll only be 20-25 miles, but I'm not sure how bad traffic has gotten since I've been gone. When I left they were widening the exit from 267 to 495 West/North, but I'm not sure what other construction is going on.
Any advice? Thanks!
Robert Thomson: Welcome back. I'll give my take, but would also like to hear from others.
Traffic has gotten somewhat worse since you left, but you've got the general idea of how bad it is. If you've been out in the Bay Area these four years, it's not going to be much of a shock to you when you get back here.
The key thing, of course, is that they're aren't that many options for your upcoming commute. (Wish you could live on the MD side to make the trip easier.) You're going to have to get onto the Beltway and come across the Legion Bridge.
Right now, Virginia is in the midst of building extra lanes on the western side of the Beltway. This is the High Occupancy/Toll Lane project. There will be some disruptions during construction, but they'll be limited. You may come to think the problem with them is that they go only as far north as the area around the Dulles Toll Road.
Maryland still hasn't come up with a plan of its own to ease congestion north of the Legion Bridge. That's still really sticky. The most annoying thing to me is that you can never count on how long a trip to work or a trip home is going to take. You know the average, but you don't know what the daily experience will be.
Falls Church, Va.: Was Metro having PIDS problems last Wednesday? I was in Farragut West around 6 p.m., and the train arrival colors and numbers were bouncing around and not matching up with the train arrivals. Moreover, once on board, the train was an extra-slow slog.
Of course, there was no announcement of any trouble, then or since. Also, the station kept broadcasting "Hi, welcome to Metro!" at high volume every two minutes. Metro seems to have decided that this is the one performance metric their going to succeed on: Loud announcements that do no one any good.
Robert Thomson: The electronic displays seem to have minds of their own from time to time. Sometimes, I see a readout that says a two-car train is approaching. Other times, trains seem to disappear, or they turn out to have different destinations from the posted ones. Single tracking throws them off, too.
I'm not aware of any particular problem with the system on Wednesday, July 22. But there were plenty of problems on the Orange Line that could have messed with the little electronic brains in the PIDS.
Here's a sampler from Metro's service report:
5:16 p.m. An Orange Line train at McPherson Square In the direction of Vienna was re-routed to the Red Line for service adjustments. Customers were required to exit the train.
5:29 p.m. An Orange Line train at McPherson Square In the direction of Vienna was re-routed to the Red Line for service adjustments. Customers were required to exit the train.
5:59 p.m. An Orange Line train at Minnesota Ave In the direction of New Carrollton was delayed due to report of smoke. Customers were required to exit the train. Nothing found, customers re-boarded the train which continued in service.
Silver Spring: Certainly not a vital emergency, but I've always wondered -- How does metro leave the system setup at night so its in position in the morning?
Surely they don't park all of their trains at the end of the lines and start commutes from there, right? Seems like there would be too many trains piled up at the ends and nothing in the middle.
Just curious to know what they do.
Robert Thomson: Metro stations trains at the ends of lines, in the rail yards and on pocket tracks throughout the system. Controllers and operators work overnight to get them in position. It's one of the things that limits Metro's ability to do maintenance work overnight. They've got to get out of the way of all those trains.
Red Line this morning and new rail cars: For the person whose train was packed at Union Station this morning -- don't know which direction you were going, but there was some sort of train malfunction at Rockville that resulted in delays towards Glenmont (I waited 25 minutes for a train at Bethesda at 7:15).
On the 6000 series cars -- I have to agree with GridSpouse, as another vertically challenged person. The biggest problem is when the train is very crowded -- you can get stuck in the middle of a horde with literally nothing to hold on to but the nearest person -- and if you don't know them, it can be a little embarrassing.
Robert Thomson: Yes, there were extra problems on the Red Line this morning, besides the slowdowns related to the June 22 crash. I see this as a building problem for Metro: We still have all the old issues with trains breaking down. Now we have the new issue of the safety policy layered on top of all the old stuff. Riders are really steamed.
On the 6000s: Yep, that's pretty much the way the GridSpouse would put it -- only you were more polite.
Washington, D.C.: Dear Dr. Gridlock,
After reading your Sunday column and venting my own complaints on your forum, my question is - who can we send our Metro complaints to to actually get something done? The Metro website is useless, stations managers are needlessly gruff when asked a question, and the board members and Catoe don't seem to be concerned about our concerns. What are Metro users to do???
Robert Thomson: Couple of thoughts:
You can keep on writing to me, because I'll keep publishing letters about what riders are experiencing. (I continue to think that Metro is overestimating what information is reaching passengers and underestimating how angry its best customers are getting.)
Many of the board members are public officials in your communities and you can reach out to them there. They do pay attention. Here's a link to the page on Metro's Web site that has their biographies.
Get involved with the Metro Riders' Advisory Council. The council very much needs more public involvement. Here's a usefulink.
But Metro officials are doing too much communicating through press conferences and disembodied announcements in stations. They've got to get out there and talk to you.
Bus routes: Hi Doc! I have pretty much switched to only riding MetroBus - it's more convenient and it's cheaper. However, the bus maps on Wmata's Web site are horrible. Sometimes they don't show exact streets, never mind actual stops. Add in the fact that they're in PDF! Do you know if MetroBus routes are available in an interactive map anywhere, similar to how the subway routes are in Google Maps (even on Wmata's Web site)? It would make it so much easier to plan my trips.
Robert Thomson: I have not seen a map program that does this. But you might get some satisfaction out of Metro's NextBus page online. I've been using it to help track down the location of stops, in addition to its primary purpose of telling people when the next bus is going to arrive there.
Arlington, Va.: More than 10 years ago, I was living in S. Arlington and commuting to the same location in Bethesda. The commute was horrible back then. For the previous poster, buy somewhere in Md. or find a job in Virginia.
Robert Thomson: Despite everything we've been complaining about concerning Metro's current state, the best option would be locating near a Metro station -- if you can't find a place that allows you to walk to work.
Local: I know this question must have come up before, but last Thursday the platform around 5:20 p.m. at Metro Center going toward Shady Grove was packed at least 15 people deep all along the length of the train. When the trains arrived and after the passenger exited the waiting period did not match the necessary time needed to board, causing the cars to leave less than half empty. People where holding doors open, get stuck in the doors, a dangerous situation. All this with Metro officials on the platform, how can this happen? Why aren't they able to call the driver and have them keep the doors open another 20 seconds?
Robert Thomson: I've said repeatedly that Metro needs to get more staffers out on the platforms to actively participate in the train loadings and unloadings. The service disruptions and the fact that trains now pull to the front of the platform make for some dicey situations during rush hours.
If you stand at one end of a train on a platform and look down the entire length, you have some sympathy for the challenge the operator faces in seeing everything that's going on at a crowded platform. That's where platform personnel should come in to help.
22314-why timely information is crucial: Dear Dr. G, I would like to submit an example of why timely information from Metro track work and delays is so important to the ridership. On Wed. evening I was traveling to Braddock road metro from Capitol South, where I exit and need to take a bus to my home in old town, Alex. I keep the bus schedule in my phone and I know approx when I need to enter metro to arrive in time to catch 1 of three bus routes home. On Wed. I entered the system at 8pm caught an orange line to gallery place, transferred to yellow with a wait of 2 minutes and was on my way to Braddock with enough time to spare to catch either a 8:35 or 8:40 bus. Except that we stopped at the airport and sat for quite a few minutes-with no announcement and then stopped again for quite a few minutes outside of the Braddock station this time with an announcement that we were waiting for staff to clear the area due to maintenance work. The minutes ticked by and we finally pulled into the station at 8:45. I have missed my bus(es) and have an hour wait for the next. I did not have enough money for a cab home since I was not planning on this, and since it was still light out I opted to walk home which is not the best option due to safety concerns. If I had known about the maintenance I would have gotten on metro earlier, or stopped at a cash machine for cab fare-meaning I would have planned ahead. Instead I was faced with unattractive choices at the end of my metro ride.
Robert Thomson: I can't think of any good reason you shouldn't have been seeing and hearing announcements in the station and on the train.
This is an issue on both the rails and the roads: Our transportation agencies can't give us that much more new stuff -- trains, highways, etc. -- but what they should be able to do is give us timely information about problems and about our options.
Metro 7/22: In regard to the earlier questioner. I entered McPherson Square at about 4:20 p.m. last Wed. As I was entering I heard "...delay due to..(Train Noise)". The Blue line train I boarded sat for several minutes each time before being able to enter Farragut West and Foggy Bottom. After Rosslyn we seemed to be past the bottleneck.
Robert Thomson: Yes, I think there must be multiple sources of current information for riders: Online, on the phone, readable in stations and on trains, hearable in stations and on trains.
Hillsboro, Va.: Last week's chat had comments from riders about fewer 8-car trains. I'm noticing the opposite--more 8-car trains coming through West Falls Church around 6:45-7:00 a.m. Maybe Metro has finally recognized that a huge number of people start work at 7:30, not 8:00?
Robert Thomson: Metro says it hasn't change the number of eight-car trains in the system. We've now got all the rail cars we're going to get for a while. They could make adjustments in the operating hours of the eight-car trains, but basically, they want to use them during peak periods.
Reston, Va.: Hi Dr. G: I wanted to let you know that I took the advice of many of your chatters/readers and tried the I-15, I-81, I-76, etc. route up to Boston a few weeks back and man, that was the best ride I've had up that way in many a year. Not only was it a more visually stimulating drive, but no tolls (except for the Tappan Zee bridge and the Mass Pike)! All told, it was only 30 miles longer than my traditional I-95 slog, and was shorter time wise than my average. So, thanks to the chatters!
Robert Thomson: Very glad to hear this, and it is indeed a frequently recommended alternative to I-95.
One caution: The toll plaza at the Tappan Zee Bridge can be real slow. It's an extra good place to have E-ZPass. And the highway travel right after the bridge along the Cross-Westchester Expressway can be anything but express. Lots of construction around White Plains.
Re bus routes: I spent one year in Barcelona. That is a model for public transportation. Every bus stop, regardless of the line, had a giant map on the back showing every bus line and every stop. It even showed metro and tram stops so you could plan your trip. There is no reason D.C. couldn't work this well either.
Robert Thomson: In addition to adding the NextBus information system, Metro does plan to improve the quality of information you can read at our bus stops. Barcelona sounds great, though. I hope we can approach that.
Arlington County, Va.: I'd like to know what we can do to get the D.C. DOT to expedite construction on Chain Bridge. With the present manpower levels, they'll be working on the bridge until this time next year, if we're lucky. Is anyone from DDOT actually monitoring the work? Why aren't they working through the night and on weekends to get the work completed sooner? It looks like yet another DC disaster in the making...
Robert Thomson: The rehab of the Chain Bridge is scheduled to be done in January, and I haven't heard of any alternation in that schedule. DDOT says a lot of the early work has been under the bridge, so the only thing visible to drivers is the staging area along the side of the road surface.
There's supposed to be one improvement by Tuesday morning: Creation of some extra right-turn space near the traffic signal on the Virginia side so more drivers can turn right on red onto Route 123. That specifically addresses a bunch of complaints I've heard. But I'm also getting complaints about long lines for left turns onto the bridge from Canal Road and about delays making left turns at Arizona/MacArthur.
Bethesda, Md.: Given all of the problems at Metro for decades, and congress' power to insist on certain actions in D.C. government, why hasn't congress required a special overseer? I would expect something like how the GAO functions in independent reports to congress in an oversight capacity. Something needs to be in place to ensure corrective actions are swift, appropriate, and aggressive. Why has nobody suggested this?
Robert Thomson: Part of the package deal in creating a new, dedicated funding source for Metro is more federal oversight. But I wouldn't push that to the point of replacing local control with a federal overseer. The locals should run it and we should hold them accountable for how they do.
Springfield, Va.: What happened with the Secret Service's attempt to close 14th Street between Constitution and Pennsylvania this morning? Why did they want to do it and how was this traffic disaster averted?
Robert Thomson: It's still a little confusing to us who actually thought it would be a good idea to close 14th Street all day long today because of that international event at the Reagan Building. That original plan would have been extreme, and I know commuters would have had some other choice words for it.
Bus Schedules: Hi Dr. Gridlock, Is there a way to access Metro bus schedules besides the PDFs on the Web site? I haven't been able to open them for weeks, and I have tried 3 or 4 different computers. Thanks!
Robert Thomson: I'm not having any trouble calling up those pdfs right now from my newsroom computer. Are you trying for the big maps, which are large files, or for the timetable page?
I'm a frequent user of this timetable page.
It's especially convenient if you know the route number, but you can also look at the schedules by jurisdiction.
Metro D.C. : Okay, I like riding Metro, but every time I get on those trains with the hand-holds I hit my head on them as I walk down the isle. Or I do a sort of slalom to miss hitting my head. Is Metro going to keep these?
Robert Thomson: Yes. These are the vinyl straps that hang down from the overhead rail. It's a challenge for taller people. To me, it's like walking through a room with spider webs.
Metro managers probably feel like they can't win when they see discussions like this. The straps were installed in response to rider complaints about not enough places for standees to get a grip.
Rockville: "Tell me some other topics you'd like to see covered in such surveys."
Which laws people obey and which they see as suggestions.
Robert Thomson: Yes, that's a good one, too. It would apply to drivers, transit users, walkers and bikers.
For San Francisco: For the person from San Francisco moving back to the area -- I don't know what prices are like out in Reston, etc., but have you considered looking for housing in Silver Spring or Rockville? Both are more affordable than Bethesda, and would be a much better commute (although the outer loop from Silver Spring to Bethesda is not great in the morning (same for the inner loop in the reverse direction in the evening) , but at least it's not that far, and there may be alternative routes).
Robert Thomson: Yes, the cost of housing is a common issue whenever we have a discussion about where people should look when they relocate to this area. We can't tell people to live close to work or live close to transit and then price them out of those markets.
As you note, that northern arc of the Beltway is one of the worst and most persistent problem areas for drivers, but it is shorter than the Va to Bethesda trip.
RE: Bus Schedules: I have trouble opening them on Mozilla Firefox for some reason. Refreshing the page multiple times sometimes helps. Windows IE seems to work fine.
Robert Thomson: I have trouble with Foxfire on many PDF downloads, not just Metro, and like you, I find the same pages download just fine on IE.
Washington, D.C.: Is it possible for Metro to update the online trip planner to account for the recent Red Line delays? I have tried to plan trips (some of which involve transferring to a bus) recently, only to have missed a train because the online planner was wrong (and I used the Metro station clocks to check to see if I was late). With trains running less frequently, missing a train makes me miss my bus, and catching an earlier train sometimes means having to leave 45 minutes earlier to catch the previous bus.
Robert Thomson: I get the feeling this would be a quantum leap for Trip Planner. The technology isn't capable of adjusting to scheduled weekend track maintenance let alone the daily, or hourly, variations in the Red Line schedule. (See what I mean: Metro people need to be out answering questions like this, and maybe solving a few of them. They're underestimating what people are steamed about and what they want to know about daily service.)
Washington, D.C.: Regarding Chain Bridge and other construction projects in general, there is a saying in the traffic engineering world that you can have a project built fast, inexpensively, and properly....but you can only pick 2 of the 3. Given budget constraints, DOT's have to pick inexpensively. Therefore, the only things on the table are fast and properly. I think most people would rather see it done properly than having a rush job done. Unfortunately, to have it done properly and fast is more expensive (think overtime labor for those workers putting in nights and weekends), and governments don't have the money now.
Robert Thomson: Thanks for mentioning this, because I realize I didn't account for it in my previous answer on Chain Bridge. This comes up all the time when I talk to construction managers and relay public concerns about the length of projects. They use the same equation you did, noting that they just don't have the money to pay for a lot of night and weekend work.
Washington, D.C.: While Congress regularly meddles in the affairs of the District, it doesn't have similar powers over the other parties/jurisdictions to the Metro compact. I'm sure Bethesda and other folks in Va. and Md. don't want to submit themselves to the kind of overseeing that Congress does with D.C. More federal involvement in this case basically means more federal dollars, except that there should be federal safety standards set and enforced. Be careful what you wish for...
Robert Thomson: One related aspect of this: I do believe that Congress should consider national standards for the safety of transit systems.
Ellicott City, Md.: While traveling down Interstate 95 and Route 29, I see a lot of ICC construction. It looks like the construction is moving along smoothly. Is there any expected completion date? I've heard mid-2011. Does that sound reasonable to you? I can't wait! Thanks for your response.
Robert Thomson: I was out on the western side of the Intercounty Connector route a couple of weeks ago. The total project is about a third done now. The western side will open first, late next year, probably. I think it's late 2011 for the 95-29 part toward the east. The project is well-managed and they seem to be doing fine with the work. But let's see how the construction of those big interchanges affects travel on 95 and 29.
Arlington, Va.: For SF,
When considering where to live make sure you contact you auto insurance company typically Md. drivers yes even in Montgomery and Howard counties pay 75 to 100 percent more in rates than living in Fairfax.
Also you tax bill will be higher in Md. even with our personal property tax.
Your utility bills will be higher in MD than in NOVA. In NOVA try to find a house that is served by NOVEC. They offer electricity at the lowest cost in the area with the fewest power outages. There is a significant difference here.
Consider office hours that start at 6:00 a.m.
Add all your monthly costs and then figure out where it is cheapest to live. Then balance out the commute.
Robert Thomson: That's a good list. Specifically on commuting: I find that people way too often fall in love with a particular housing situation and don't test out the commute under real conditions.
Tall peeps: Not to disagree with all the short people who seem to have problems reaching the handles on the metro, but keep in mind that it can also be difficult for us really tall people who constantly get trapped in the middle of the train and hit our heads on those metal handles that hang down. I vote for the strap ones to keep everyone happy!
Robert Thomson: We can't keep everyone happy.
Silver Spring: Could you remind folks that the right-on-red law means you treat the red light as a stop sign, not a green light? (I'm talking you, Mr. Lexus SUV who honked at me at the Rockville Pike/Montrose intersection the other day.)
Robert Thomson: That's one for the survey on what laws people take seriously and what they take as advisories. I'm alarmed by how many people I see gliding into right turns at red lights.
Largo, Md.: "The issue was opening the interchange to traffic at all times, and that could only be accomplished by making safety improvements along the stretch of entrances and exits at Landover Road, Arena Drive and Central Avenue."
I would contend that these improvements have made the road less safe. You now have a double white line that people cross on a regular basis. There are no barricades, jersey walls, or even cones separating the exit traffic from the thru traffic. Add the bottleneck problem that is created from having just 3 lanes going thru, and it's just a mess.
Why couldn't this interchange be like the Virginia beltway interchanges (50, 236, and Braddock) where the far right lane proceeds to the exit separated by a jersey wall and 4 lanes continue through? How much money did it cost to do this "upgrade?" Could they at least install those little plastic poles to keep people from crossing the double white line? There is going to be a MAJOR accident here very soon if something is not done to make this road safer.
Robert Thomson: Maryland State Highway Administration says it considered safety and environmental issues in opting not to place barriers along the Beltway split.
former New Yorker: To travelers taking the Tappan Zee to get up to I-84 and Boston: there is no need to take the Cross Westchester Expressway east of the bridge. Simply take Saw Mill River Parkway north and that feeds into I-684 about halfway up to I-84. A lot of people from outside the area are afraid to try NY's parkways because they don't have numbers and the names can be confusing, but most of them are really nice (truck-free!) drives.
Robert Thomson: From one former New Yorker to another: I love the parkways for the views, but there are safety issues and they can get congested. If doing the I-84 thing, you may run into congestion at Danbury, Conn.
(Of course, there's no way to avoid congestion on a long-distance drive up the East Coast. The best thing is to have some alternatives to try, so thanks for mentioning this option.)
Robert Thomson: Travelers, thanks for joining me today. It may be mid-summer, but we've still got a lot of good comments in the mailbag. Let me see if I can get to some more of your issues this week on the Get There blog. And come back safely next Monday for another chat.
The Dr. Gridlock column receives hundreds of letters each month from motorists and transit riders throughout the Washington region. They ask questions and make complaints about getting around a region plagued with some of the worst traffic in the nation. The doctor diagnoses problems and tries to bring relief.
Dr. Gridlock appears in The Post's Metro section on Sunday and in the Extra section on Thursday. His comments also appear on the Web site's Get There blog. You can send e-mails for the newspaper column to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Dr. Gridlock at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.
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