Yesterday’s transit tomorrow

Smart Transit for Orange County writes:

Smart Transit for Orange County is asking voters to vote “NO” (AGAINST) the transit tax so that a better plan can be developed. The diverse group of pro-transit leaders from the towns and the county who joined together to oppose the transit tax referendum said the tax increase would authorize a plan that over-emphasizes light rail transit (LRT) at the expense of a frequent, reliable bus system that truly serves the towns and the county. Once built, light rail cannot be shifted to accommodate changing commuter and user patterns.

If the tax fails in November, planners will be forced to come up with a plan that better fits the needs of the county. The tax can be brought back on a later ballot.

The tax referendum has received little fact-based reporting from the press, partly because the details of the complex plan weren’t finalized until early October – just a week or so before the polls opened for early voting. Many voters don’t know that there even is a plan, and believe they are voting for or against transit in principle.

The major issues raised by the group are:
• Fixed LRT doesn’t fit changing local demographics and commuter patterns. UNC’s campuses and health-care facilities are decentralizing, and increasingly, commuters are coming from Chatham and Mebane. Growth projections ignore the growing senior population and changes due to cyber commuting.
• Transit priorities for bus service and the Amtrak station in Hillsborough are shortchanged by the huge investment in LRT. The plan devotes nearly 75% of the county’s transit dollars to a four-mile light rail segment from UNC Hospital along east NC 54. The segment completes a 17-mile line to Duke Medical Center and on to Alston Avenue and is estimated to cost Orange County taxpayers $1.4 billion.
• The plan provides no direct service to RDU, RTP or Raleigh. Wake County has not discussed or agreed to the plan at all.
• The plan overlooks emerging technologies such as Bus Rapid Transit – which qualifies for the same grant funds as LRT and can provide integrated transit service throughout the county at a fraction of the cost.

Triangle Transit Authority and associated government agencies need to go back to the drawing board. Convenient, reliable and widespread bus service that targets population centers and economic development areas is essential to building ridership and encouraging people to leave their cars at home. A flexible, frequent and extensive bus service, along with bike lanes and sidewalks, might meet the needs of workers and students better than LRT and be less costly per rider. Good transit is non-partisan. It’s hard to understand why Orange County voters are being asked to fund a plan that’s clearly designed to benefit Durham and the universities. A “no” vote now buys the time to make a better transit future for Orange County.

Smart Transit for Orange County is committed to working with leaders to develop plans. The group includes former Town Council member Julie McClintock, GOP leader Bob Randall, Chapel Hill Realtor Mark Zimmerman, Efland businessman Greg Andrews and Maple View’s Bob Nutter working side by side with town advocates Will Raymond and Marty Mandel, rural advocates Bonnie Hauser and Tony Blake, Southern Triangle’s Jeanne Brown and Hillsborough resident and county commissioner candidate Mary Carter.

To learn more about the plan and the tax, visit the Smart Transit for Orangewebsite, http://transitfororangecounty.wordpress.com/, and Facebook page, “Smart Transit for Orange County,” or contact:

Tony Blake (tonyblake@nc.rr.com)
Mary Carter (mary.carter_nc@yahoo.com)
Bonnie Hauser (bonnie@OrangeCountyVoice.org)
Will Raymond (transit@willraymond.org)
Del Snow (djdsnow@msn.com)

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23 Comments

  1. Jason Baker

     /  October 29, 2012

    Fixed LRT doesn’t fit changing local demographics and commuter patterns. UNC’s campuses and health-care facilities are decentralizing, and increasingly, commuters are coming from Chatham and Mebane. Growth projections ignore the growing senior population and changes due to cyber commuting.

    LRT helps shape our development in the future. “Decentralization” is nothing more than a fancy way of saying we are becoming more sprawling. Our transit plan should work to counteract sprawl, not to serve and enhance it.

    Transit priorities for bus service and the Amtrak station in Hillsborough are shortchanged by the huge investment in LRT. The plan devotes nearly 75% of the county’s transit dollars to a four-mile light rail segment from UNC Hospital along east NC 54. The segment completes a 17-mile line to Duke Medical Center and on to Alston Avenue and is estimated to cost Orange County taxpayers $1.4 billion.

    Or in other words, the plan creates a level of service appropriate for the densest, most populated part of the county, by using a technology which has long term financial benefits and a greater return on investment. It connects the largest employers in the region, and in doing so, serves the most possible people.

    The plan provides no direct service to RDU, RTP or Raleigh. Wake County has not discussed or agreed to the plan at all.

    This is just false. We ALREADY have direct service to RTP and to Raleigh. I ride the direct service to Raleigh daily. The 800 to RTP is specifically cited on page 6 of the transit plan as a route which is set to receive additional service because of this plan. The existing bus service to RDU also stands to benefit from this plan. Wake County’s delegates to the Special Transit Advisory Commission, on whose work much of the transit plan is based, unanimously endorsed the regional plan. The citizens of Wake County are clamouring for transit service as well. I am confident that they will be throwing out their head-in-the-sand Republican county commissioners soon, now that they have seen what a disaster those commissioners have been to their local reputation, just like they threw out their embarrassingly ignorant school board.

    The plan overlooks emerging technologies such as Bus Rapid Transit – which qualifies for the same grant funds as LRT and can provide integrated transit service throughout the county at a fraction of the cost.

    False. The plan INCLUDES Bus Rapid Transit along corridors where that level of service is appropriate: in the immediate future this will be the MLK Jr corridor, but in the future may include other corridors as well.

  2. Nancy Oates

     /  October 29, 2012

    “Decentralization” is nothing more than a fancy way of saying we are becoming more sprawling. Our transit plan should work to counteract sprawl, not to serve and enhance it. — And if council would preserve some of the affordable housing options that currently exist in town, we could reduce the number of commuters, because people who work here could live here.

  3. Terri Buckner

     /  October 29, 2012

    Decentralized medical services isn’t sprawl–it’s providing services to people where they live. (I support the transit plan but don’t support that premise in Jason’s defense of the plan.)

    The dilemma we keep getting ourselves into is coming up with strategies that control sprawl. The rural buffer hasn’t done it, but it would be worse without the buffer. I don’t believe transit will do it either. In fact, I think there’s a good chance that growth and sprawl would increase if transit were made available to the rural areas of the county.

  4. Jason Baker

     /  October 29, 2012

    Terri – I wasn’t referring to medical services specifically. The “decentralization” verbiage has been used by transit plan opponents to refer to our overall employment pattern throughout the discussion this fall.

    I think decentralization is a misleading word when used in the context of the medical center. Even as we see UNC Hospitals build satellite facilities, the density of their central location is continuing to increase. The central location will be no less in need of light rail service ten years ago than it needs it today.

  5. Jeanne Brown

     /  October 29, 2012

    Jason – the argument that placement of the LRT line will shape future growth is not an argument that should used to garner support in Chapel Hill or Orange County because, as you know, the only area served by the LRT portion of this plan is 54 which is predominantly built out.
    Clearly, economic development opportunities based on this LRT lie predominantly in Durham and will, most likely, further increase the retail leakage gap that Mayor Kleinschmidt and Dwight Bassett are hoping to fill at sites throughout town – most notably, Ephesus Church Road, and downtown – neither of which is served by LRT.
    I cannot tell you how many people have been giddy to ride the train to Durham to go to the DPAC. But how many Durhamites will want to ride the train to Chapel Hill just to end up at the hospital and then have to either hike, board a bus or hire a taxi to have dinner or shop on Franklin Street? Or is it our intent to shift the focus from reviatlization of downtown to 54 (and, if so, has someone told the Downtown Partnership?)
    Furthermore, because our economy is so strongly tied to the University and UNC Healthcare we have to recognize the changing face and needs of those institutions. None of their new development – Carolina North, the Hillsborough hospital, the East Towne site, the Borders site…. are served by the LRT.
    The examples of Bus Rapid Transit in Eugene/Springfield Oregon shows that two neighboring communities were able to install 5 BRT corridors in the same amount of time that it will take TTA to get this single LRT line up and running.
    It is my understanding that the MLK BRT system will not be put in place until after federal funding for the LRT has been attained. And yet, that line could be implemented quickly and could actually be expanded to southern Chapel Hill – thus providing a line that runs the entire length of town from north to south.
    Finally, let’s not get into the BRT vs LRT technology argument. For me, it’s all about the plan. And, in this case, the plan is wrong for Chapel HIll and Orange County.

  6. Dencentrailization means a lot of things – mostly that commuters aren’t going to or coming from a single place. Its the decentrailization of UNC (Carolina North), UNC Healthcare (more locations along 15-501 and in Hillsborough; employeers (county economic development districts at Buckhorn and Eno plus Chapel Hill’s 2020 target areas) That’s in additon to the shift in commuter patterns -especially growth in commuters from Chatham and Alamance..

    So why limit transit intensity (and $500 million) to a single, four mile corridor -and assume commuters are willing to be force fed to it?

    Yes there’s 2 1/2 mille of BRT along MLK – The question is why is BRT being overlooked for the 54 corridor -where we are committing to LRT. BRT is a lot cheaper, more than sufficient for our projected commuter volumes, and can be implmented more quickly. Plus it doesn’t have the downside risk if the projections ( which are in question) don’t materialize (partly because of decentrailization and shifts in our commuter patterns). With bus and BRT, we have the option of a flexible and convenient transit system that can adapt to a changing vision for the community.

    That said – there’s a great deal of uncertainty and unrest around growth of any kind – and before we decide where to place fixed transit infrastructure, it seems we first need to make decisions about desired size and density — none of which has been settled.

  7. one more thing – I’m with Terri – there are no “silver bullets” to contain growth and sprawl – and that includes transit.

  8. Many

     /  October 30, 2012

    Mr. Baker,

    “…..by using a technology which has long term financial benefits and a greater return on investment.”

    Oh please. LRT is one of the greatest wastes of money going (yes, money is still a resource). Not one of the multitude of LRT systems in this country has ever delivered on its promise of cost and ridership. No LRT system in the country comes even close to covering its operating costs, much less It’s total cost. It is not “appropriate” nor does it have “long term benefits” and given the data “greater return” is just plain laughable.

    http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa663.pdf

    I do not oppose mass transit, but LRT is wasteful in general and particularly absurd in the low density context of this area.

    BTW your references to “head-in-the-sand ” and “embarrassingly ignorant” do not further the dialog on transportation or your cause. They reveal you to be extreme and your susceptibility to confirmation bias.

  9. Jason Baker

     /  October 30, 2012

    I am disappointed, but not surprised, to see some of the reaction here.

    Jeanne: I don’t know how to respond to several paragraphs of bashing the LRT line followed by a statement of “let’s not get into the BRT vs LRT technology argument.” It feels a little unfair to ask me to do so. The argument between BRT and LRT, regardless of where you stand on it, is nothing more than a discussion of technology and cost. LRT carries more people, scales more cheaply, and lasts longer. It’s also much more resistant to large changes in fuel prices. How well is bus technology alone going to serve us when fuel prices triple again in the next 10-15 years? And that’s to say nothing of the fact that we should be divesting of technologies that rely on fossil fuels to begin with. Rail cars can last five times as long as buses, and each new rail car doesn’t require a new driver. And once we pass the point when we do realize that LRT was the right decision, we’ll have to spend the cost of LRT all over again, plus disrupt any BRT if we wish to put LRT in the same corridor. BRT doesn’t save money as a transition technology, but even if it did, the current density at the nodes of this corridor already justify building the LRT today.

    The problem with the retail leakage argument is that it assumes there will be no new growth on the 54 corridor, and that a retail entity needs to be directly on the light rail line to benefit from it. Neither is true. And the Chamber of Commerce seems to agree, as their board unanimously endorsed the referendum.

    Bonnie: It’s not a four mile corridor. It’s a seventeen mile corridor. Just because there’s a section that’s not in Orange County doesn’t mean that section doesn’t exist. It’s a regional system, let’s at least agree to talk about it in a regional context.

    I don’t understand why you think BRT wasn’t considered as a technology for the 54 corridor. Did I somehow miss a statement somewhere from the transportation planning experts who spent years developing this plan with the input of many varied stakeholders, including citizens and elected officials, that they forgot to consider BRT as an option on the 54 corridor? Different technologies were considered, and LRT was determined to be the preferable way to move forward because of the reasons I listed above, among others. There are some advantages to either system; we don’t disagree about that. The advantages and disadvantages were weighed, and the vast majority of both the professional planners and elected officials at every regulatory agency involved in the decision making process that brought this plan forward agreed with the decision to proceed with light rail. It should be noted that this decision is consistent with the unanimous recommendations of the Special Transit Advisory Commission, which studied this corridor in the context of the larger region.

    “Many”: I stopped reading your post when I got to a link to a Cato Institute study. Invoking an extremist right wing organization like Cato isn’t going to get you much mileage with me (or with the vast majority of Orange County).

  10. I’m going with Jeanne- the plan is bad.

    OC gets to choose about its 4 mile, $500 mm segment of LRT. If we choose “no”, then we have the option to work with Durham to pursue a 17 mile BRT at a fraction of the cost of LRT– and more flexibility to integrate with other transit cooridors.

    Let’s stop kidding ourselfes about the region. Its most disturbing to listen to advocates use Wake County population growth to justify LRT for Durham-Orange. And the region isn’t Durham/Orange; it’s Orange/Wake/Durham/Chatham/Alamance is a region. The region is NOT engaged in this plan.

    I’d love to see an alternatives analysis of LRT vs BRT for the 17 mile corridor. Please share it – we can’t find it. To us – it looks like the planners have been working on this for so long that the technology changed. LRT is technology of the 1990s; BRT is leading for the 21st century. If you don’t like CATO, check out the GAO New Starts apps

  11. Many

     /  October 31, 2012

    Yep Jason, I could hear your mind slam shut from here. Is Cato extremist because of their arguments in favor of gay marriage or for our criticism of the Bush war in Iraq, or only when they disagree with your conclusions?

    Your confirmation bias is really disturbing in someone who claims to represent the area. When I hear your cultist light rail rhetoric I am reminded of a quote: “Every man…should periodically be compelled to listen to opinions which are infuriating to him. To hear nothing but what is pleasing to one is to make a pillow of the mind.” –St. John Ervine

    So, I’ll keep trying to reach you:

    “[Baker]…..nothing more than a discussion of technology and cost. LRT carries more people, scales more cheaply, and lasts longer.”
    [Many] This is patently false. BRT is much more flexible and cheaper accomplishing the same thing.

    “[Baker]……It’s also much more resistant to large changes in fuel prices. How well is bus technology alone going to serve us when fuel prices triple again in the next 10-15 years? And that’s to say nothing of the fact that we should be divesting of technologies that rely on fossil fuels to begin with.”
    [Many] Jason, where is it you think the electricity to run your light rail on comes from?

    [Baker] “……current density at the nodes of this corridor already justify building the LRT today.”
    [Many] No, it does not. To accomplish the density we will need significant land use and planning changes that will drive the cost of real estate and building up through the roof. This will have the effect of driving out the poor and middle income folks (where is your concern for “social justice”? Again, it is zoning and land use that drives density NOT light rail. Light rail is merely a reaction to the density driven by zoning and land use.

    If you are so afraid of reading anything from a source that does not stroke your confirmation bias, how is a 2011-12 policy brief from UC Berkeley? http://www.uctc.net/research/briefs/UCTC-PB-2011-02.pdfc

    From the policy brief:
    “……For investments to pay off, there must be an unwavering local commitment to substantially raise population and employment densities along transit corridors. While dense areas average higher transit capital costs as well as higher ridership, our analysis suggests that many transit stations in the U.S. have nearby job or population densities that are too low to support cost-effective transit service. The thresholds in this study can provide cities and towns with targets
    for zoning around existing and proposed transit stations based on projected costs.”

    That is the view of the current state of affairs from UC Berkeley Jason. Your tender progressive ears should be able to tolerate that message. 🙂

  12. Terri Buckner

     /  October 31, 2012

    I can’t think of a single section of MARTA (Atlanta’s rail system) that goes directly to where I’ve ever wanted to go. I’ve always had to connect to a bus or walk–which is fine with me as long as those connections are easy to find and run frequently.

    This isn’t a perfect plan. No attempt at regional collaboration is ever going to be perfect or meet everyone’s personal needs. But because of our employment patterns, Orange County can’t make transit efficient on its own. Too many of our citizens work outside of Orange County (something like 60%) and the majority of that group work in Durham. Light rail is going to seriously reduce air pollution and carbon production. If we use it as the “spine” of the system and then build out the skeleton from there, I think we have a good, solid (if imperfect) infrastructure that will take us into the future.

    The other aspect of this plan that I like is that the MPO uses current and predicted census data for determining funding. If growth is concentrated in an area like 54, then there will be less support for very ill-conceived plans like building a big box development in an area that is not adequately supported by transit or transportation plans.

  13. Terri – maybe Atlandt’s transit limitiations are why just last summer, voters rejected the latest attempt at another transit tax increase.

    The MPO has been corrected repeatedly on its projections (downward). For example, they confused annexations of Meadowmont and Southern Village as “growth”

    Land use planning and zoning – not LRT – drive density – and right now – developers, not transit planners, are driving projects like Obey Creek. Lets not confuse the two – or use any of it to justify LRT that costs nearly $100 million per miile by suggesting its going to affect outcomes like Obey Creek.

    Voters have a choice – and hopefully the recent dialog has helped to inform that choice.

  14. Many

     /  October 31, 2012

    Terri,

    “……Light rail is going to seriously reduce air pollution and carbon production. If we use it as the “spine” of the system and then build out the skeleton from there,”

    Perhaps, but my question is how so?

    I think studies have shown that the ridership on Light Rail comes primarily from the Buses it replaces. Obviously the TTA has not invested in many of the research papers available on the subject: http://trid.trb.org/view/2012/C/1216096

    From the abstract:
    “…….It is also shown that for the introduction to be more successful any taken action should be accompanied by policies that chastise the use of the private car such as increased parking charges or higher fuel taxes.

    So….light rail is not competitive on it own and must be “subsidized” by “chastising” private vehicular use.

    Once again light rail cannot stand on its own. Before we go down this light rail path the TTA and our politicians should be interested in full disclosure and explain how that plane to force light rail to be “successful”

  15. Terri Buckner

     /  October 31, 2012

    Bonnie,

    This plan is an attempt to correct past land use planning and zoning errors that allowed developers to control where density would be placed. It won’t work unless elected officials and town planners change their way of thinking about projects like Obey’s Creek and tell developers that they cannot build mega-developments outside of the transit corridors. But it’s a start. Holding them all responsible for past mistakes doesn’t move us forward.

    To me, your plan has no long-term vision, although it may have its short-term merits. But for the long-term it ignores the realities of climate change, impending energy shortages, and managing sprawl.

    Voters do have a choice, and I too hope the recent dialog has helped them separate out short-term and long-term priorities for building a solid transit infrastructure. Infrastructure never comes cheaply.

  16. Terri, as I’m reminded every morning by my commute into RTP, many of the folks who work in Durham work where the LRT isn’t going.

    I work within a 1/2 mile of TTA yet my commute via TTA would add between 1 and 2 hours to daily at a per use cost of $8/day or, with a pass, $3.50/day.

    “Many” is dead-on in his/her observation that the LRT plan is actually a stalking horse for a switch to radical high growth/high density land use policy.

    Much of Durham’s west side LRT alignment goes through environmentally sensitive watersheds which currently host low density or greenfield land uses. If these areas are redeveloped to the extent required to make LRT fiscally sustainable, there will be a several factor increase in car use, significant primary and secondary impacts on the watershed/natural heritage and waterfowl protection areas and a general diminishment in the water quality of Jordan Lake.

    Jason has generally supported sound environmental policy but has chosen to ignore this aspect of the LRT system in his unwavering support. His fellow Sierra Club leadership also have shown no concern for these impacts in the race to promote an economically and environmentally unsound LRT policy.

  17. Linda Convissor

     /  October 31, 2012

    Will,
    The density of the route of the LRT between stations is not as critical as the density around the stations.

    The first time I saw a map of the planned transit stops was so many years ago I can’t remember. Then, the plan wasn’t for LRT, but for the heavier DMUs. The station was literally drawn where my house is now. As the maps have been refined, we’re farther away from the station, but I still hope close enough to walk. I can’t wait.

  18. Linda, you end your comment with ” I can’t wait.” but that’s the problem – you will be waiting while alternatives languish.

    One of the key indications that the current plan was antithetical to addressing our community’s needs was TTA’s refusal to share %25 of Orange County’s revenues for local transit options (bus, ped and bike improvements).

    I’d prefer a more equitable share than that but even with %25 there are a some very key improvements we could make that would service both your neighborhood – which apparently is “lucky” enough to have a LRT station nearby – and the many other neighborhoods – including those who have residents with great need and no current service – throughout the community.

    Putting most of the money into the LRT option starves us of further options (unless we tax ourselves even further).

    As far as concentrating density at stations, that might be the case for the last two stations in Orange County but will not be the case for those stops in the most environmentally sensitive areas of the Durham alignment.

    Which brings us to the second major flaw in the TTA plan. Instead of pushing forward with a shorter link directly along 15-501, which would reduce the environmental impact and significantly improve the economic impact (and service the new 47 acre UNC “health park”), TTA (and Jason it appears) is promoting an alignment that has the best economic profile for Durham and the worst environmental/economic profile for Orange County.

    If you look at the already approved projects, projects on the drawing board and the consolidation of properties along the Durham line you would see that developers are anticipating end-to-end development all along the line. Those developments outside an easy walk will still be economically feasible as commercial growth fuels support services and residential developments – like the Verge – find it an easy sell to provide onsite connector service.

    The downside of that pattern of development is that we’ll end up with a ribbon of high density development, with all the cars which will come with, right through ecologically sensitive watersheds. Of course, Durham, which has shown no reluctance to building in the most sensitive of ecologic zones, will reap both an economic and tax windfall which will be subsidized by our Orange County community.

    Note, most “successful” (based on ridership and not economics) LRTs are in areas where density led transit. TTA is working against the grain by taking a “if you build it, they will come” approach.

    In short, if you want your TTA LRT, you’re going to have to deal with the significant impacts to both infrastructure and environment well before the Federal dollars flow.

    Is that worth waiting for?

  19. Many

     /  November 1, 2012

    Linda,

    On the other hand, BRT could be up and running in a much shorter time frame, with far less cost and impact. A well thought out BRT system has “stations” and shares exiting infrastructure rather than cutting a new swath of development with all of the associated battles over zoning.

    I invite you to take a quick look at a video someone sent me on San Antonio’s vision for BRT (BTW; San Antonio is *much* more dense than this area)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3M67M2ILAA

  20. Long term transit relies on a long term land use plan -which we don’t have. In the meantime, bus service with BRT in high transit corridors will be highly effective for our projected density in the forseeable future.

    Our demographics, density and commuter patterns are in a state of flux. If our plan was truly regional plan and included Wake, I’d feel differently. Instead we’re putting our eggs in the “train to Durham basket”, and will be unable to respond when RTP and Wake County come online. (RTP announced massive redevelopment plans yesterday)

    You might ask – where’s TTA’s long term plan?

  21. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  November 3, 2012

    Roger Stancil, in 2010, asked TTA to look into a 15-501 LRT routing. Although “Alternative 3” was presented as an option offering a route shorter by 2 miles (@$100,000,000 per mile and construction time saved), serving existing retail hubs, and less destructive to the natural environment, TTA management explained that its plan was well under way and could not be changed– all this before UNC Health Care took over the Eastowne office park, and without regard to Rams Plaza redevelopment.

    My reasons against the LRT route through the Jordan Lake flood control lands are
    1. destruction of Jordan Lake wetlands and drinking water quality;
    2. new dense building on Chapel Hill town’s periphery in Durham County to siphon economic energy away from downtown and the commercial corridor along Rte.15-501;
    3. making traffic impossible to negotiate (there is presently a long-term plan to widen Rte 54 from 6 lanes to 8 lanes from the town limit to the university, eliminating its crossings and putting in mile-long “superstreets” to steer eastbound drivers back towards Glen Lennox, the Oaks and Meadowmont);
    4. This route does not relieve traffic on densely traveled, densely built (and soon-to-be denser) 15-501.

    Downtown currently has several projects in the pipeline adding about 2,000 apartments of various sizes. That’s the kind of density mass transit can serve, but light rail transit plans don’t go to where the density is.

    LRT’s gargantuan invoice to Orange County– for a stop near the Friday Center, a stop behind East 54, then a stop near the hospital– is so high as to cripple transit in the denser parts of Chapel Hill and Orange County.

  22. Here here.

  23. Many

     /  November 5, 2012

    You have to ask the question: What else could 1.4 billion dollars buy?

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