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Does Metro's budget hide a service cut?

For years, WMATA has been proposing budgets with ever-increasing rail service. The approved FY 2013 budget has almost 8.4 million miles of scheduled railcar service, almost double the amount scheduled in FY 1997.

So why does it feel like the amount of service is actually declining? Because it is. According to figures reported to the Federal Transit Administration National Transit Database, Metro's rail service hit a peak in 2009 and has decreased almost 6% since:

It's actually part of a long pattern where Metro would propose a higher level of service to the Board of Directors, but then the actual amount of service delivered is substantially lower. For FY 2002 until FY 2008, Metro would determine the actual amount and update the chart in the following year's budget. Each year, the amount of promised service would look like a big increase compared to previous years'.

In 2009, this practice stopped. Metro now no longer updates the budget document with the actual amount of service. Metro still reports the actual amount of service to the NTD, and the shortfall has grown to 18% of the proposed service level as of 2011.

Recently, The Washington Examiner reported a drop in ridership of about 5% compared to last year. In my opinion, the combination of decreasing ridership, decreasing service and increasing fares carries the specter of a transit "death spiral," where service cuts reduce revenue, forcing greater fare increases, which in turn drives more people away from transit.

Note: I reached out to WMATA for comment earlier this week and initially planned to give them until Monday to respond. However, I also told the blogger behind Unsuck DC Metro about this issue so we could collaborate, with what I thought was an agreement not to publish this information yet; Unsuck went live this morning with a post based on the information I gave, so we are publishing now. If we get a response from WMATA, we will update this post.

Michael Perkins serves on the Arlington County Transportation Commission, though the views expressed here are his own. He lives in Arlington with his wife and two children. 


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This is big news. Nice work.

by Teyo on Dec 13, 2012 9:30 am • linkreport

The long awaited return of Michael Perkins.

(as an aside, I find it depressing the former in-the-tank Perkins is now colloborating with known GGW enemy Unsuck)

I said on Richard's blog the new tendancy to move federal workers out of the core area is also part of the death spiral. Given that something like 1/2 to 2/3 of rail riders are federal-associated, I'd say the private sector has given up.

But I am confused -- is the 5% reported drop the drop reported to the board or the the NTD?

I'd be curious to compare this to revenue, and espcially private revenue. MY feeling is a lot long distance riders gave up after the drop in gas prices and are not coming back.

by charlie on Dec 13, 2012 9:48 am • linkreport

The 5% reported drop in ridership is in Metro's reported numbers to its own board. I didn't look at what they told the NTD.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 13, 2012 9:56 am • linkreport

Yeah unsuck has it too.

So once again...Fire Sarles.

by Redline SOS on Dec 13, 2012 10:01 am • linkreport

Presumably, the shutdowns in 2010 surrounding the two snowstorms should be factored in as causes for WMATA's failure to meet its projections, and would partly account for some of the gap there. Don't believe there were any unanticipated weather-related service disruptions in 2011 though, and 2012 isn't plotted yet (so the Sandy days don't factor in).

In all, this seems like a very big deal. Perhaps the mainstream local media will actually bother to cover it?

by Matt on Dec 13, 2012 10:04 am • linkreport

@charlie & Michael

The 5% drop is the drop in ridership for the 3rd quarter of 2012 reported to NTD/APTA. Not sure if they give different numbers to the board.

The NTD publishes a spreadsheet every month with ridership and other service numbers (revenue miles and hours) on their website. A direct link to the file here.

APTA's quarterly ridership report is here.

by MLD on Dec 13, 2012 10:11 am • linkreport

Looking at that graph - is the decrease in service partially due to the massive track work? Metro travels significantly fewer revenue miles on weekends than it would on a normal schedule...

Either way, I don't like this news.

by Matt Davis on Dec 13, 2012 10:23 am • linkreport

I tried to comment on Unsuck how their version of the chart has the Y-axis starting at 60-million instead of zero like your chart does here. Of course, their comments are moderated. I wonder if they'll actually approve a comment criticizing them?

by MDE on Dec 13, 2012 10:24 am • linkreport

"My feeling is a lot long distance riders gave up after the drop in gas prices and are not coming back."

They will come back this summer when gas prices go up again. The problem is when people are "pushed" off transit by bad service. Research has shown riders who get turned off by break downs, service cuts, or generally disgusting things happening on buses usually don't come back.

by Mark R. Brown on Dec 13, 2012 10:25 am • linkreport

A lot of commenters here are missing the point: it's not about whether Metro was able to supply the proposed service. It's that they're reporting different numbers to the board than to NTD.

by MDE on Dec 13, 2012 10:25 am • linkreport

@MDE it's not about whether Metro was able to supply the proposed service. It's that they're reporting different numbers to the board than to NTD.

Ding Ding Ding! We have a winner!

by Adam L on Dec 13, 2012 10:31 am • linkreport

@MDE: agreed. My big problem is that they're reporting a level of service that they're not actually providing.

The reality is that Metro can't provide the planned level of service when they're doing this much maintenance. Metro should be up-front and honest about what the region is getting.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 13, 2012 10:32 am • linkreport

The Washington Examiner reported a drop in ridership of about 5% compared to last year

Really, I suspect a lot of this is related to track work: I almost invariably avoid the metro system on the weekends because not only is service less frequent in general, but the track work tends to make the metro unusable in terms of getting anywhere within a reasonable amount of time.

by JustMe on Dec 13, 2012 10:35 am • linkreport

Count me amongst the people that have given up on metro. While some of my decision had to do with my schedule becoming more erratic, the bulk of it had to do with how inconvenient taking metro had become along with increasing costs. It simply got to the point where something always went wrong on my commute and I just couldn't rely on it like I used to. I wish that that weren't the case as I used to enjoy using the system but now it's a huge inconvenience most of the time.

Don't even get me started on trying to use the system on a weekend...especially if your trip involves a transfer.

by Craig on Dec 13, 2012 10:38 am • linkreport

Seems clear from the chart that in 2009 they stopped reporting actual service to the board and just reported what their previous budgeted service was as "actual" service. Then they stopped reporting "actual" service altogether since it was bogus.

Looks like they are budgeting as if they are running regular service at all times and not accounting for track work. As everyone has experienced, weekend service is half to three-fourths what it should be, not to mention evenings during the week.

The other question is, if they are running 18% less service than budgeted, why don't they have enormous budget surpluses every year?

by MLD on Dec 13, 2012 10:51 am • linkreport

@MLD, thanks. I wish you would start your own blog.

"The other question is, if they are running 18% less service than budgeted, why don't they have enormous budget surpluses every year?"

Damn good question. Fixed vs. variable costs? I asked something like that a few days ago -- which you have now sort of answered -- about the mismatch between the budgting and actual.

by charlie on Dec 13, 2012 10:57 am • linkreport

@MLD: I assume because they have to spend the money on providing shuttles and other service related to maintenance.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 13, 2012 10:58 am • linkreport

The other question is, if they are running 18% less service than budgeted, why don't they have enormous budget surpluses every year?


by CapHill on Dec 13, 2012 11:00 am • linkreport

The death spiral is an important thing to be concerned about.

I feel like the weekend track work nightmares would be easier to take if Metro had a better way of communicating/helping people visualize what they're accomplishing out there, to give some sense that the system will be somewhat normal again someday within our lifetimes. Just reading the short week-by-week descriptions of the work on the Metro website doesn't give the feeling of "okay, the system used to be in however bad shape, and thanks to all the crap they're putting us through every weekend, it's now X% better and has advanced toward some sort of goal" that I think would be more reassuring.

It really worries me when I talk to people who are new to DC, because just a few years ago it used to be that when I talked to recent arrivals they would usually be gung-ho about Metro and what a great thing it is compared to wherever they came here from, but now a lot of them just roll their eyes and make some snarky comment about it. The system used to help sell people on the idea of urban living and transit and it sure is having trouble doing that now.

by iaom on Dec 13, 2012 11:05 am • linkreport

@Mperkins: " I assume because they have to spend the money on providing shuttles and other service related to maintenance."

Hmm. Isn't that covered by the capex expenses -- i.e. part of the cost of capex is provding the shuttles.

I'd suspect overtime, as usual. The pension issue should almost be worked through by now.

by charlie on Dec 13, 2012 11:07 am • linkreport

@iaom: I think I saw a Metro ad this morning at Gallery Place that advertised some of the improvements that Metro has made over the years (at Dupont Circle, I think), presumably making the argument that all of these disruptions will result in better service. I say "I think I saw" this ad because it was partially hidden behind a big green service wall.

I'm pretty sure I'm part of Metro's 5%. Because of Courtland Milloy's bike lanes, I've been biking more and more often; and, now that my bike has given me a good understanding of distances in this city, even walking around when I can't bike.

by Steven Harrell on Dec 13, 2012 11:21 am • linkreport

I hope this is the start of more aggressive reporting about WMATA on GGW.

It's great to promote transit but if the transit system is horribly mismanaged it's not going to be successful at getting people out of their cars.

I still commute by Metrobus, which is still somewhat reliable on my route. But I have replaced almost all of my other WMATA travel with driving, biking, and the occasional taxi or Uber ride.

by Phil on Dec 13, 2012 11:28 am • linkreport

@Steven Harrell, I think I know the ad you're talking about. There's a similar one up at Navy Yard. I huckle every time I walk by it. They closed Dupont south for how many months, with the promise of spectacular new escalators that wouldn't break down, and as I understand it, the darn things keep malfunctioning.

by Birdie on Dec 13, 2012 11:54 am • linkreport

Has Metro ever given an ending date for all of the weekend maintenance "track work"? Or is this just the way it will be from now on?

by Vicente Fox on Dec 13, 2012 12:02 pm • linkreport

@Vincente Fox: The graphs that I've seen out there indicate that this is the new "normal", in that there's a huge backlog that requires a lot of maintenance not only to keep up with the new things that are wearing out, but also to replace the things that are already worn out.

I tried to figure out for myself when it was going to get back to a "backlog done, now this is the normal amount of maintenance we have to do" but I wasn't able to figure it out.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 13, 2012 12:28 pm • linkreport

It is pretty clear they aren't provind the same service as measured in track miles per year, because the system is virtually closed every weekend. How can they roll the same number of miles when the entire system is single tracking on 20 minute or more headways?
I am one of the many who gave up on metro 2 years ago after many years of ridership. It simply became unusable. Even M-F during rush hour, the system is plagued with frequent delays and issues. My door to door trip would vary by upwards of +20 minutes a day. You can’t operate w workday like that when you have things like morning meetings etc. Driving was already twice as fast and once the fares rose to the point of costing me $8 bucks a day to get to work, paying the 12 bucks a day to park, all the while getting to work happier and more relaxed in half the time is well worth it.
I am also curious as to where the extra money has gone. If they tell the board they spend X dollars providing Y services, and they provide less, then there is money left on the table somewhere. Since the overtime and shuttles are already factored into the capital costs, where is what should be millions of dollars of year going?

by NoMoreMetro on Dec 13, 2012 12:35 pm • linkreport

I think talking about a Transit Death Spiral is a bit overblown when the system is getting $5 billion in capital funding for catch-up on maintenance, repair, and fixing the bleeping escalators. SEPTA can only dream of getting $5 billion in capital funding for a 6 year state of good repair project.

How much of the drop in service miles is due just to the disruptions from the frequent weekend track work? How much of the drop in ridership is due to fare increases and the drop to $125 for the transit tax break?

There is obviously a lot of frustration with the pace and disruptions from the weekend track work. Good reasons for it too given the wide ranging service disruptions from last weekend which was hard to figure out. I feel sorry for any tourist trying to take the Yellow Line last weekend.

One area is where Metro can improve is communications to the public. Nothing new about that of course. Along with the descriptions of the weekend track work, they should also provide a map showing where the disruptions are and suggesting alternate routes - especially for a mess like last weekend. Does Metro have a webpage that provides details on & tracks the work accomplished so far and what specifically is planned to be done in the next year or two? People might be less frustrated if they saw progress with the weekend track work and had an idea of when it might wind down.

Also WMATA should reconsider how much track work they try to pack in 1 weekend. If there is a major disruption to a part of the core routes, how about not single tracking at multiple places on other lines?

On the issue of weekend ridership, planitmetro did post this chart in November: Weekends are affected by major events and weather disruptions, so it is hard to tell from that chart how much the track work of the past year plus has hurt weekend ridership.

by AlanF on Dec 13, 2012 12:46 pm • linkreport

"Death spiral" is right on. I don't think it's all about money either. The system has deteriorated too far too fast. it's essentially become a rush hour service. MTA handles weekend closures much better because they actually communicate with riders about what they are trying to accomplish. You can sometimes even see evidence of the end result of weekend work too. Metro could he holding weekend staff parties on closed tracks for all we know.

by aaa on Dec 13, 2012 1:03 pm • linkreport

I'm concerned that WMATA is shifting towards the Gold Standard for Suckitude, San Francisco's Muni system. Chronic delays, triage maintenance, lying to the board, mismanagement at all levels of the staff - these things are what makes a Metro system suck.

DC and the suburbs are focusing on cheap alternatives to Metro, like biking and the Circulator. If Metro wants to compete, it needs to get its act together. That starts with honesty.

by David Edmondson on Dec 13, 2012 1:20 pm • linkreport

I personally don't use Metro on weekends anymore. Ever. Though I do use the bus if one is coming around the time I need to leave.

And I've started using Capital Bikeshare to cut down on my Metro commuting during the week.

I'm sick of facing what feels like at least one breakdown a week, constantly busted escalators, and the smelly conditions of a lot of the stations I use.

by lou on Dec 13, 2012 1:28 pm • linkreport

Somewhat off-topic, but so be it. There are a lot of secondary reasons, but as always, IMO, the main reason for the drop is the continued subsidy provided to cars.

According to this (likely somewhat slanted, but still) report: . The US should spend 1.7 trillion between now and 2020, or roughly 200 billion a year, of which we are short 94 billion a year. The gas tax brings in 33 billion a year, and the federal government has transferred roughly 30 billion a year to infrastructure. Take that out, and the gas tax needs to raise another $124 billion a year just to maintain.

Every extra .01c brings in 1.8 billion a year. Increase it from 18.4 to 87.2c, and we close the gap. Fund our infrastructure properly, and with the extra .70c in gas costs, I think we would have seen a 0% decrease, or even a small increase in ridership.

Make this palatable by decreasing income tax rates/brackers and/or increasing ETIC at the very bottom to make it revenue neutral. Seems like a no brainer, but transit is bad, and all taxes are bad, so we will see no progress here.

by Kyle-W on Dec 13, 2012 1:34 pm • linkreport

It would be great if one of the map gurus in this blog took all of the Metro track work announcements for the last 2-3 years and plotted them on the MetroRail system map... just to see where the troublesome areas were.

Anecdotally, it seems as if the stations' heads-up displays are spending more time cycling through escalator and elevator outages around the system than they do announcing the due-in inbound trains.

"Outage" = "Outrage" ?

by Jack Love on Dec 13, 2012 1:35 pm • linkreport

Along with everyone else, I only ride Metro on weekends if going to a Caps game, otherwise I CaBi, even from Petworth to AdMo or wherever. I find myself using the buses more than the metro as well.

by Kyle-W on Dec 13, 2012 1:40 pm • linkreport

@ iaom

My sentiments exactly. The amount of closures and lines being truncated on the weekend is absolutely ridiculous. I'm just hoping that there is an end to it, and this isn't the Metro we should get accustomed to seeing for the foreseeable future.

On the website they say that the work is part of "a six-year, $5 billion Capital Improvement Program (CIP) that is focused on safety and bringing the Metro system into a state of good repair." Hopefully after the 6 years (which started when?) things will get back to normal.

by King Terrapin on Dec 13, 2012 1:54 pm • linkreport

It's striking that so many of the commenters--presumably people who are invested and support good public transportation--hate taking it and don't want to (and I count myself in that category). It seems like it's increasingly people who have no choice but to take it. I ride the Metro at most one trip a week on average, usually less, and go out of my way to avoid it. Metro seems to have managed a unique feat of economics, making the experience so miserable that even though it is cheaper than driving (sometimes substantially more so; I often take a zipcar rather than Metro) people go out of their way to avoid it. They're moving in a very dangerous direction.

by Joe on Dec 13, 2012 1:54 pm • linkreport


For me it's not so much that I hate Metro, it's that I have to balance out the time for transfers. If a bus is coming in 10 mins and will get me where I need to go in 30, that's a 40 minute travel time. If the Metro is coming in 10 minutes and will get me a 10 minute walk to where I need to go in 10 minutes, that's a 30 minute travel time. Given the cost premium, I'll probably take the bus.

Now, if I have to transfer Metro lines (I almost never have to transfer bus lines), that adds a 20 minute uncertainty, and I'll definitely take the bus.

I love taking Metro at rush hour (it's optional and a short hop) because headways are so low. At most, it adds a 5 minute uncertainty, which is less than the time difference between bus and train.

by David Edmondson on Dec 13, 2012 2:00 pm • linkreport

There are a lot of secondary reasons, but as always, IMO, the main reason for the drop is the continued subsidy provided to cars.

Sorry but this doesn't make sense. The subsidy to cars is relatively constant, so it doesn't explain a sudden drop of 5% in the space of a quarter.

Factors that likely contributed to the 5% drop (no order):
1. Q3 2012 had one fewer weekday than Q3 2011. That's about a 1% drop in riders right there.
2. July 4 was on a Wednesday in 2012, it was a Monday in 2011.
3. Track work probably mattered some, even though it has been going on for almost 2 years now. Weekend ridership was down more than weekday ridership.
4. The kicker is probably the fare increase that started in July - likely this was the last straw for a percentage of people and they left. Especially the off-peak hikes combined with track work make it a much less attractive option.
5. Rush+ service changes went into effect starting in mid June, and it's possible that some Blue Line riders stopped riding.

by MLD on Dec 13, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

@Vicente Fox and Michael Perkins, the question of how far along we are in the track work schedule was raised directly with WMATA rail staff in the December Riders Advisory Council meeting. The answer was (surprise!) vague. They are apparently slightly behind where they wanted to be by this point. When pressed, they said that intensive track work would be necessary for some time to come to get back to "normal". The RAC repeated the need for better WMATA messaging on the progress of trackwork. You can hear the exchange in the audio version of the meeting here:

by Ben on Dec 13, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

"It's striking that so many of the commenters--presumably people who are invested and support good public transportation--hate taking it and don't want to (and I count myself in that category). It seems like it's increasingly people who have no choice but to take it. I ride the Metro at most one trip a week on average, usually less, and go out of my way to avoid it."

I used to love riding Metro until about 2007-2008. That's about when problems started to surface and then it hit a death spiral in 2009 that it is unlikely to pull out of absent drastic reform by Congress or local leaders.

Bus service has actually improved in recent years due to Nextbus and the introduction of new buses - initiatives, incidentally, of John Catoe. Firing him was a big mistake, Sarles has been much worse.

by Phil on Dec 13, 2012 2:21 pm • linkreport

@lou: I personally don't use Metro on weekends anymore. Ever.

Nor do I. It's really frustrating, because I live south of Huntington, and would love to do more in the city on weekends. But it eats up such a large chunk of my time that it's not worthwhile, unless I get a straight shot in on the Yellow Line. I'd sooner drive. And if they raise rates again, and if parking rates continue to remain steady, I just might start driving. I've considered it for a long while, but haven't yet.

You talk of communication: I was stuck at L'Enfant a couple of months ago for an hour because of some problem on the track. I actually wrote up a blow-by-blow account but then laid it aside without doing anything with it. The gist of it was, though, that I heard about four different answers from four different Metro personnel about what was happening, and not a one ended up being true. The lack of communication, among staff and between staff and passengers, is nothing short of astounding to me.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Dec 13, 2012 2:44 pm • linkreport

I love having the option of metro train and bus -- its just not my first choice -but it is my 2nd!

by Tina on Dec 13, 2012 2:47 pm • linkreport

Maybe I'm alone in this, but when Metro breaks down and I'm stuck, I couldn't care less WHY it's happening, I just want to know WHEN we're going to get going again.

by Juanita de Talmas on Dec 13, 2012 2:50 pm • linkreport


Well, yes :)


It is certainly not just you. Make it work, get me home/where I am going!

by Kyle-W on Dec 13, 2012 3:55 pm • linkreport

Once again this weekend, the entire Metro system is a mess. Yellow isn't running over the bridge--only Huntington to Pentagon. The green is split into two segments since it's shut down at L'Enfant Plaza. The orange is single-tracking all over, and therefore only running every 24 minutes at all times (!). And of course the red is single-tracking in two places, so also only operating every 24 minutes--though there is some additional service between Van Ness and NoMA.

If I wanted to metro into DC, I could expect to wait 10-30 minutes for a train, and then if I had to transfer to another line . . . well, that would be even more frustrating. So even though I have a monthly pass and any rides would be free--and I'd much rather take the metro!--I'll either take a bus or avoid transit.

To echo some of the comments above, if it's having this effect on someone like me, who really wants to ride the Metro, wouldn't we expect a pretty big general effect? And more generally, how can we keep this up every weekend without any clear endpoint or any obvious progress being made?

by Gray's The Classics on Dec 13, 2012 9:27 pm • linkreport

This was news to me, but I wasn't surprised. I ride Metro typically four days a week, and every week I experience or see the aftermath of at least a couple of service disruptions (manifesting as very long headways, a number of trains packed tightly together, and/or trains out of sequence). Between the service disruptions on the weekdays and the construction related service cuts on the weekends, Metro is running significantly less service. Thus it is no surprise that ridership is down. What is amazing is that Metro has stopped reporting the level of service they actually offer.

by US DOT guy on Dec 14, 2012 7:49 am • linkreport

@Joe: the situation is worse than you think for many of us--Metro is not cheaper than driving, it's substantially more expensive. I used to Metro into the city all the time on the weekends, and enjoyed sitting and reading a book while doing it. But I gave up a year or so ago, because I just couldn't take the poor level of service (bus bridge? single track? just don't feel like running right now?). Even at its best, coming from Vienna, Metro took slightly longer than driving, and the ticket cost more than the gas. Parking is free either way. Now it's easily twice as long (could be more than three times as long on a bad day) and twice as expensive. Why would anyone take Metro on the weekend now unless they have no other transportation option?

This is a death spiral. Once you've driven off people with bad service, it takes a lot of effort to get them back--and Metro has shown no signs that they are capable of that level of effort.

by Mike on Dec 14, 2012 9:13 am • linkreport

The weekend trackwork has been crushing even to those of living in the DC core. I can't count how many times I've had to drive to visit friends in Tenleytown or Bethesda because of red line closures over the past year. What should be a short walk to a 20-minute train ride becomes close to an hour. If we're not willing to ride metro, who is?

Great discovery here, and I hope you get the chance to do more with it.

by worthing on Dec 14, 2012 9:36 am • linkreport

Something else I forgot to mention: for this weekend, only the green/yellow line work at L'Enfant qualifies for a mention on the "major track work" page at I guess only running trains every 24 minutes along significant portions of the Red and the entire Orange line from 10 PM on Friday to midnight Sunday is just a minor thing.

by Gray's The Classics on Dec 14, 2012 9:53 am • linkreport

@Gray's The Classics: I think this is because Metro does not consider a 24 minute headway below their performance standard for off-peak.

In July, they circulated a draft performance standard stating that a train every 30 minutes was their minimum for off-peak. While public protest and board comments ultimately forced Metro to retract proposing a standard for off-peak, it's possible that Metro still considers 30 minutes the threshold for when they have to tell the public about a "major track work" action.

Previous article:

by Michael Perkins on Dec 14, 2012 11:58 am • linkreport

What would be nice but will never happen is WMATA could give the users some type of discount or alternative service during major service issues like single tracking for long parts of a route.

WMATA could run a special routes (2 or 3 per hours) in-addition to train service when it is single tracking, since there are no bus routes that go between most Orange, Blue , Green or Red line stations if a rider wanted to do that.

At the least give a list of ways to reach each station by bus from a nearby station if a person does not want to deal with single tracking or service shutdown.

Allow riders to leave out if there is a 20 or 30 minute wait and get a refund or enter back in 15-25 minutes later.
There have been many times where I have entered a station and the PID says nothing about the next train coming in one direction at all on the PID that is on the faregate level. I dont see the 20 minute time until after passing through the gates and going to the platform which made me mad as heck.

Give riders who enter or exit stations that are in the single track zone 5cent to 50 cent discount.

Anything is better than what is currently done just telling customers to deal with it.

by kk on Dec 15, 2012 10:24 am • linkreport

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