Sound Transit and King County Metro have been brainstorming ways to make their free-ride programs work for each others’ services, in response to a petition by the Transit Riders Union.
The county distributes paper tickets through non-profit agencies that serve homeless clientele. These tickets are honored on ST Express buses operated by Metro. Sound Transit distributes day passes that are only accepted on Link. The tickets cost the agencies 20% of face value, which is to say 50 cents for most tickets. The day passes cost the agencies $1.00. Naturally, most agencies opt not to get involved with the more expensive, less versatile, Link passes.
ST and Metro are considering a plan to offer a combo of a Link day pass and some tickets, for $1 cost to the agencies.
Multi-service day passes were offered back in 2012, but those passes went away after numerous complaints, including the use of erasable ink to fill out the dates, and failure by distributors to fill out a date. They were kept on Link because fare enforcement officers could take the time to check for fraud.
The free ticket program is the very definition of the acronym “PITA”. Agencies have to go through a one-year certification process to be allowed to give out tickets. The agencies have to collect personal information each time they give out a ticket. They have to pay the county 20% of face value to receive those tickets. They have to keep lobbying for more tickets as the homeless population balloons. For clients, having to get free bus tickets one at a time is the worst possible situation, next to no transit access at all. Often, there are no tickets available. Having the tickets not be usable on Link, when various trips now require using Link, is forcing a fresh round of pontification.
Trying to bring transit fare media distribution into the 21st century, through e-purse and/or pass uploads at hundreds of agencies, is far beyond what most agencies serving the homeless population are set up to do. Indeed, at all four locales in the US that have programs to give out free monthly or longer passes for the homeless population (Santa Clara County, Phoenix, Minneapolis / St. Paul, and Miami / Dade County), the job is shunted off to non-profits to deal with, and minimally advertised.
The ORCA LIFT program has served those who can’t afford to pay the full fare well, but it wasn’t designed to solve the problem of those who can’t afford to pay any fare. However it, along with the youth ORCA card and the Regional Reduced Fare Permit for seniors and riders with disabilities, may play a key role in solving the problem of homeless access to public transit.
First, give out paper monthly passes, covering the rest of the current month, at all the agencies currently offering free one-ride tickets. The passes would have the month and year clearly printed on them, and could be printed in a distinct color/design for that month. This solves the problem of invisible ink and failure to fill in dates that led to the demise of the free multi-modal day passes.
Second, when giving out a pass (or when telling a client that the monthly supply has run out), also provide a voucher that certifies that individual is eligible for a free monthly pass for the next month, and directs the recipient to locations (possibly Public Health, possibly Metro’s customer shops) where that voucher can be converted to a monthly pass for the stated month on an ORCA LIFT, RRFP, or youth ORCA card. The pass for the current month could also possibly be convertible to an ORCA pass, with proper identification.
Third, to make the concept of free transit access for the homeless more palatable to the general public, set a date for the elimination of paper transfers. Make ORCA cards widely available for free for a period surrounding the cut-off date.
48 Replies to “Three Steps to Free Monthly ORCA Passes for the Homeless”
Why is raising the general public’s fares going to make this more palatable to the general public? As things stand paper transfers generally allow way longer to complete your transfer than does ORCA. Also, paper transfers can be reused on future days. Forcing everyone onto ORCA would be a de facto stealth fare increase.
As it turns out, modulo some discomfort about the diversion of supposedly dedicated transit taxes to pay welfare by stealth (It’s not clear in your proposal whether or how Metro and ST are being compensated for the values of these passes, so this may be a groundless concern), I would happily make this tradeoff. But I doubt that my opinions resonate well with the general public’s.
Although there is a subculture devoted to reusing paper transfers that is not an intended use for them and actually constitutes fraud. Why do you think it is good? Other than perhaps innocently eking an extra hour out of a transfer how do they benefit the well intentioned rider?
I’d like to see the cost of ORCA reduced and ticket vending machines that allow one to instantly add value to ORCA more widely distributed around the community but I see lots of benefits and few downsides to reducing on board cash payments. We could even do things like make the whole bus tunnel a fare paid area and have people walking directly on to buses down there without swiping or paying cash fares.
Last I heard, the tunnel will go busless in 1-2ish years. So, you’ll at least get that wish.
The labor investment in ORCA Boarding Assistants could be moved upstairs, to the most congested boarding zones.
Is there some kind of paper ticket that I could purchase to hand to homeless? I mean, obviously, they will ride whether they have a ticket or not- and it’s up to transit enforcers to care. But, when solicited for money, I would like to provide actual useful things instead of money. (like snacks, wet wipes, bus passes, etc..) Maybe i am too ‘pie in the sky.’
I guess you could give them an Orca card, either preloaded or empty? Aside from transit, I’ve heard that gift cards to local cheap restaurants are helpful.
What if they don’t need the thing that you’re giving them, but something else that you don’t have? This is why cash is so useful- you don’t have to worry about giving someone something they have no need for, they can just use the cash to buy whatever they need.
It’s best to donate your money to charities that serve the homeless population (and there are some great ones). By donating cash directly to the individual, you often enable the self-destructive behavior that created their original downward spiral. The sad truth is that the people who could use the cash the most for life sustaining materials aren’t the habitual panhandlers.
I’m with you, Bob. Cash is the best to give because they can use it to get what they want most. If that’s drugs so be it. Most homeless will need a lot more than a gift card or some spare change to get out of their circumstance. The idea that the difference between gift card vs cash will be the difference between enabling vs them getting their life together seems silly to me. If I can spend an extra thousands bucks so my bike is carbon, I can spare a few non-judgmental dollars a day to make some panhandlers have a slightly better day. That being said, I do think monetary donations to the chronically underfunded organizations serving the homeless is a great choice of tax deductible giving.
Not all homeless people panhandle. I suspect most don’t; they use the shelters and services to get back on their feet, or depend on contributions from relatives, or “couch surf” among their acquaintances, or don’t want to panhandle even if they have nothing else. There are also a lot of people who are one step away from homelessness, living paycheck to paycheck until a setback occurs. So the panhandler you see may be just the best salesman, not the most deserving person. Giving to charities increases the cross-section of recipients, and may reach deserving people your panhandler money won’t.
Then there’s the scams. One evening there was a guy around 15th & John saying he needed money for the last bus to Redmond,. Somebody there had offered him a place to stay, or maybe his car was being fixed, I don’t remember exactly. I wasn’t sure when the last 545 to Redmond was so I didn’t know if that trip was plausable or possible that evening. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt and gave him a few dollars, while trying to make sure he understood which bus it was and where to catch it (which I wasn’t 100% sure, I thought 4th & Pike). You often see people who don’t ask for money who don’t know where to catch a suburban bus. Then I went on my errand and twenty minutes later I crossed Broadway and saw him asking someone else for the same thing. I.e., he wasn’t going as quickly as possible downtown to catch the last Redmond bus before it left.
You could also buy Real Change. That would give somebody an income and also let you read what homeless people more generally are concerned about this week, and experience their cultural contributions to the city (poetry/stories/art).
Thanks for the recommendations. I usually don’t have cash/ like to give cash but maybe can change my ways once in awhile. re: the recommendation to donate to charity/ organization that help the homeless… I feel like every time I do, I end up getting TONS of junk mail. And it doesn’t apply to just Union Gospel Mission here (they send so much mail), it applies to Doctors without borders, Save the Children, KUOW, ASLA, donating to friends’ 5K runs… So tired of getting junkmail, i kinda stopped donating money to orgs. Maybe gift cards to cheap restaurants like someone mentioned is the way for me to go.
When I was in 5th grade, our class had to write a thank you note to the fire fighters that let us visit their fire station.
Would it be too much to ask to require those that receive free and reduced fares to write thank you notes to full-fare payers? I would at like a thank you note for my generosity and philanthropy.
Perhaps we could tie the receiving of free passes to the thank you note. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Thoughts?
Your thank you note for getting to post here for free is much appreciated. Donations are gladly accepted, too. See the yellow pill button in the right column.
Sam, our mailmen have all been eaten by poodles, so you’re off the hook for correspondence you’re offering to send us for reading your comments. But here’s a favor you can do these pages and your readers.
We need a posting on the commuter rail system in Mumbai. Specifically, a detailed description of the morgue run by the transit system, and whether or not it takes ORCA cards. But soon as Air India touches down, be sure the US Embassy has a DNA sample.
So the bill will come to your address. Because morally we can’t heap anymore financial hardship on the Indian transit public for services they didn’t agree to. But for their own health, have to pay for anyway.
Thank You :)
Chad “Homeless” Ballaluxi
Or we could just stop trying to be fancy about this and dump Orca for a simple, straightforward, so-cheap-it-doesn’t-matter NYC style MetroCard.
I don’t understand who thought the complexity of Orca was a good idea. Had they never used a transit system before?
An ORCA card is neither complex or onerous. It’s a laudable goal to prevent frequent and repetitive waste and push the general public into accepting a non-disposable fare card. One very awesome thing about ORCA is that the e-purse doesn’t expire, unlike the value on a NYC MetroCard.
Well, yes, and that goal of “pushing the public into accepting a non-disposable fare card” is exactly what creates the problem described in the above article. These problems only exist because of that goal, which is completely unrelated to the goal of providing transit service.
The ORCA card is complex and onerous because it costs $5 to get one. If the card were free, free monthly ORCA passes for the homeless would be such a simple problem that nobody would have to waste any time thinking about how to solve it. If the card were disposable, the fact that people might sometimes end up with more than one of them would be a simplifying solution and not a problem to solve.
+1 to Mars. We have so many problems here that would be solved if fare cards could be treated as disposable.
NYC is looking to retire MetroCard. The technology is from the 1990s and woefully out of date.
With New York’s budget issues I doubt MetroCard will be retired even in 15 years, but that doesn’t mean Seattle should be regressing to obsolete technology.
MetroCards do expire, but the value loaded on them does not. You have to go to a station agent to get the value transferred to a new card. There’s no monetary cost though – the $1 new card fee is waived for expired cards.
That’s cool…so does that mean I can take my MetroCards from previous trips and have the value transferred? I just assumed that the expiration date on the card meant the loaded value disappeared after that time.
It’s not obsolete if it still solves the problem, and MetroCard does a better job than ORCA does.
MetroCards are probably cheaper per card, but they’re basically custom built technology used only in NYC (it’s a magnetic stripe, but not a standard one). Long-term, it’s probably cheaper to go to smart cards since I’m sure metrocard readers wear out much faster than contactless systems and are slower to use, etc…
Cue the multi-swipe problem with Metrocards. They’re not the most reliable thing in the world.
Correction to my previous post – you can get the value back for 2 years after expiration but after that MTA keeps the money. Within 1 year of expiration you can exchange them at station agent. If they are 1-2 years out, you have to mail them to the MTA claims office.
Pretty onerous way to get your own money back; and that’s a short period of time for a city with so many visitors who probably return every 1-2 years.
I was in London last Christmas after not having visited since 2009, and every last quid, farthing and guinea was still there on my Oyster card, ready for use. That meant not having to worry so much about “donating” several pounds to TfL if I didn’t figure out my usage correctly; it’ll be there next time.
Magentic stripe technology was the standard in most cities for years. Still used in as diverse places as Phoenix, Dallas, Orange County CA, San Antonio, San Francisco (BART), etc. Mag stripe is a mature technology. The only issue is that fare has to be encoded on the card and can’t be transmitted remotely, like adding stored value to a smart card.
@calwatch Correction – Dallas is moving to a card/media based fare collection system. http://www.dart.org/news/news.asp?ID=1209
I’m going to do my best to keep my comments On-Topic, because effort not to be personally abusive in response to several comments above is straining on its leash.
1. For the last fifteen years at least, I’ve been buying monthly passes precisely because their cost “pencils out” to save me money, not to mention saving me the hassle of reaching for change, and tailor’s fees for repairing coin-damaged pockets. So: “Hands up, Don’t Shoot, Here’s Monthly Fare + Five Bucks, Please Gimme an ORCA Card!” No force necessary.
2, and 3. Definition of “Homeless” is: “Being without a home.” Which can result from undeserved misfortune from, say, an earthquake, being laid off after lifetime work at a suddenly out-sourced job, or trusting one’s home, and life savings, to the malfeasance of a trusted financial institution.
Though in general, these people are generally too busy trying to find work to feed their families to waste time begging. Not to be confused with “Vagrancy” and “Solicitation.” Which no one is compelled to accede to, except for the Federal taxes to bail out above institutions.
Last question, and On-Topic because this posting deals with its effect on transit: Exactly why are there many more people without homes this year than last? I admit that re: seating capacity, “500 pound Gorilla” is [OT].
Perhaps our transit agencies could provide better transit service for all if they weren’t being nitpicked to take on the additional role of operating a social charity. This is really a simple lesson in staying focused.
Strongly disagree. This argument isn’t a far cry from the argument from the Dori Monsons of the world who say that transit agencies should be able to pay for themselves through fare recovery and not receive subsidies to operate. Transit is supposed to make a city accessible to residents of every economic stripe. Good transit is a powerful tool in fighting inequality.
Bringing up a completely unrelated extreme viewpoint from a click-bait writer is what people do when they have no argument and simply wish to polarize, much like the click-bait writer. Next up: Hitler and Nazis.
The fare is the same for all people. Reducing it for some would be unequal. If people need a break, that’s the job of charities and not something to be determined by a transit agency. Even better, the people calling for “equality” could start their own homeless outreach program but I suspect that things will be different if it’s their own money they’re giving away.
“The fare is the same for all people. Reducing it for some would be unequal.”
Have you heard of the federally-required discounts for seniors and riders with disabilities? Or the local fare discounts for youth? Or that children 5 and under ride free?
From a financial perspective Brent, those subsidies need to be separated out and the proper level debated in the budgeting process. How many millions are going to non-Federally required discounts? Youth fare? etc.
LA Metro in the 2007 fare increase did an admirable job of separating how much all these special fares cost – I haven’t seen an agency do that since. http://boardarchives.metro.net/Items/2007/05_May/20070524SBMItem1c.pdf (page 25). It was $59.5 million additional in revenue out of a $280 million fare budget, or 17% of fares waived as a result of non-Federally required special fares. With ORCA LIFT I suspect the amount of fares waived by King County Metro is closer to 20%.
I’m sure Metro could do that break-out. I’m totally uninterested in trying to charge full fare to kids, and I think trying to do so would make raising the regular fare that much harder. Don’t confuse fares waived with actual cost.
You’re right, Gregg.
Like any major public utility, the main focus of our transit agencies is the working condition of our region and its people.
Meaning that at the times of the system’s greatest value, it has to carry the most passengers who can’t presently afford their fare, including by reason of fleeing for their lives, or of bleeding to death in their seats. Or otherwise down on their luck. BTW:
“nit: the egg of a louse or other parasitic insect; also, the insect itself when young” -Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Also look up “Typhus.”
In other words, metaphor and not, serious concern of every agency right after a Force 9. Coldly, because disease control of all kinds will increase the number of above-mentioned fare-evaders who’ll survive to rebuild LINK and the rest of its service area.
And won’t complain if they have to wait for their paychecks ’til postal service gets dug out of University Street Station.
So religious or not, best not to make “Charity” a swear-word in part of the world where the Earth really can crack open and swallow you.
I have to agree here. Why should our transit agencies provide free passes to anyone? You can convince me that giving people with a low income a reduced fare is ok, but they still have to pay for it. You can easily convince me that giving a bus ticket to someone who is homeless and has a job interview or medical appointment somewhere is a good investment. But just giving away free monthly passes? I see no good reason for that.
Sure, provide a way for organizations that help the homeless to give them transit access (free ORCA card with picture, a way for the organization to load it, etc…) for job interviews and other necessary travel. You can even remove limits on the number of tickets an organization can issue and make it free – helping the homeless in constructive ways is generally a good investment. But there is no reason anyone should get a free, unlimited monthly pass.
The fare is arbitrary. The county sets it within a 20-30% window of the average trip cost. It could just as easily be 0%, 50%, or 100%, So when you say, “Why should our transit agencies provide free passes to everyone?”, one could equally say why shouldn’t the agencies give free passes to everyone? It’s not like a Big Mac where your $3 pays for the restaurant, the food, and the staff, and if they gave you a half-price or free burger it would come out of those. In this case the price is arbitrary and doesn’t cover most of the cost of the trip anyway.
I disagree, and I really hope they don’t set fares completely arbitrarily. Fares allow you to balance supply and demand. Let’s say you make fares completely free. Then your penalty for riding the bus is zero money-wise, so you’re much more likely to take it. That means buses fill up faster since instead of walking five blocks, you’ll just take the bus. In contrast, let’s say fares are very high. Then until you’re riding a long distance, you’re not going to take a bus. A taxi might be cheaper, or you’ll just walk, bike, or drive. There’s obviously a sweet spot in between, since you don’t want to force people to drive, but at the same time, you also don’t want to overcrowd the buses without sufficient funding to add more buses. If there’s not enough ridership, you might want to decrease the price and if there’s too much ridership, you either need to add supply or increases prices to drop demand.
The problem with offering only a certain population free passes is that they now have no incentive not to take the bus. There’s no limits on when they can take it, so they may as well take it all the time. The people who are paying full fare then get more crowded buses at best, or they’re left standing at the curb as the buses fill up with people not paying (neither of which is ideal).
You can offer reduced-price fares for low income people, because there’s still a penalty for them to take the bus, but it’s more equal to their reduced means. But you can’t just keep lowering the price to zero if someone makes no income. Hence why you introduce limits on the number of passes they can get. You could either fix it at some number or (better in my opinion) is let them use transit as long as it’s something helping them, and therefore the city.
I agree that fares have a side effect of bending the math on supply and demand, in a rather coarse, unnuanced sort of way. But that’s not the primary reason for collecting fares. Nor is funding the primary reason, though it is a larger reason than trying to ration seats or standing space. (Seattleites, I have to say, are really bad about wasting standing space.) I say that because once you subtract the costs of fare collection, including operational slow-downs, the net fare recovery is almost certainly much less than gross fare recovery.
The primary reason for fares is simply political: It is a tool to convince the general populace that bus riders are doing their part to pay for transit, by trotting out the gross fare recovery, which really is a non-sequiter measurement if one is wanting to know how much fare collection is helping transit.
Whatever Gregg is saying about the homeless riding transit is similar to how many non-transit-riders feel about paying taxes to fund transit. So, that guy who gets a free monthly pass for working at Google rides the bus for more than just commuting? Why should we taxpayers be paying for transit service for him to ride all over the city? Can’t Google set it up so that all he is getting to do for free is his justifiable, documentable commute trips? How many extra buses does Metro have because high-tech employees almost all have unlimited monthly passes? Oh, and the doctors and lawyers. They all have unlimited monthly passes, too. Shouldn’t they have to document the reasons for each trip, so we aren’t paying for party buses for techies, doctors, and lawyers?
But speaking of taxes, Metro’s real primary income source is sales tax. Guess who pays sales tax.
The fare is based on a percentage of operating costs, not supply and demand. There has been a growing belief that fares are now near the ceiling of what people will tolerate or the bottom third can afford. That was the impetus for creating the ORCA LIFT program, so that the regular fare could be raised to keep up with costs without leaving the poor stuck without transit and causing a public revolt.
Regarding people riding transit “too much”: we should to step back and ask what’s the purpose of transit in the first place. It’s because mobility benefits everybody, not just the people who use it. It leads to the optimal amount of commerce, which means the most jobs. It leads to cultural and social exchanges which enlighten the soul and people’s quality of life. It leads to people getting to doctors and wellness activities, which promote health and keep public medical expenses down. The best way to determine the right number of transit trips is to let each person decide for her/himself. Transit mobility is a basic function a city should have. Car mobility is a luxury we can accommodate to some extent but it’s unrealistic to expect we can build enough roads and parking spaces for all trips always: the result is Issaquah or Black Diamond or San Jose. If we let people take transit free as much as they want, there’s a natural ceiling to the number of trips they’ll want to take. Even die-hard transit fans would get sick of six trips a day every day. The biggest problem is homeless people riding transit all day, but that’s not really a transit issue, it’s a lack of affordable housing issue, and a lack of “wet houses” and mental health services. So let’s address those issues directly, and the problem of homeless people overusing and spoiling transit and parks will go away.
Absolutely nothing that relies on paper and ink or is printed. Never, no way. It’s far too scammable in ways that we probably can’t even imagine. It has to be 100% RFID based.
I hope that ST keeps it’s relatively uncorrupted system intact, unlike METRO who seems to openly encourage theft of service (whether through blind eye, paper transfers, or the fraud prone homeless vouchers). I definitely don’t want drivers confronting the scofflaws, it’s not worth getting beat-up (or worse), but that’s why I will only support pay-off-board ORCA type products + fare enforcers.
I know there will always be people trying to ride via fraudulent products (and succeeding), I just want it to at least appear that 1) METRO believes it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, and 2) they aren’t making it easy for people to steal from them (and us). As it stands today, METRO’s fare structure is for all practical purposes a pay-if-you-can donation service, while ST appears to be at least trying.
OK, let’s see where this takes the discussion.
I don’t know whether gas for lamps and stoves was coin-financed. If so, it’s been awhile. Pay-toilets work in transit stations if well-maintained, including staffed. Homes, apartments, and hotels no longer use them.
When roads were literally made out of logs, all of them were toll-roads. But as car-travel expanded, in general, taxes replaced tolls. And judging by present efforts to re-toll I-405, general public doesn’t want the change reversed. In spite of transponders.
Car’s big attractions is making city, county, and State lines as invisible, irrelevant, and obsolete as our present way of life does. And ideas about billing per trip aren’t getting wild acclaim.
The public accepts that yearly set of plates is easiest, and probably cheapest way to pay automobile fare. My own travel patterns make a monthly pass most convenient. Budget-wise, my transit expenses are my car’s best maintenance money. So I’ll gladly pay taxes and fare for both.
Today’s commentary’s preoccupation with policing the bottom end of the pay scale isn’t just repulsively hypocritical, ignorant and cowardly. It’s expensive by the minute. And self-destructive all the time. Neither transit nor the police belong doing mental health work at all. As a transit matter, get onto your legislators to restore those services.
But for many, many more people, massively improved transit gives them both their best-and often only- chance to get a good job, and their best guarantee of keeping it. Giving us a tax base that’ll more than pay their back fares. And them with enough money to be generous to the people who bad-mouthed them.
When they get their pink slip and their eviction notice.
I dread the day that we give free fare passes or free Orca to the “homeless.” We work to encourage commuters and the Average Joes/Janes to ride transit. The complaint I receive from my friends consist of homeless and dredges of society riding the bus. While taking the 301 downtown (while headed to the Airport) a couple weeks ago, a man keeled over stoned out of his mind, spitting, moaning and totally incoherent. I had a similar experience riding back from downtown via the E a week later.
You’ll have no way of tracking these Orca passes as some will simply sell them for cash. What they do with that cash is irrelevant. As someone who pays full fare to ride, I’m tired of throwing more money after bad. The incentive to ride transit will push the casual rider, like myself, back into my vehicle. I’d expect Link to smell and look a lot more like BART if this goes through.
If you hand out free Orca passes to the homeless, you’re inviting them to make the buses their hangouts when they’re tired of their streetcorner or want to get out of the rain. I remember one morning when “Mr Scratchy” spent the ride across 520 vigorously scratching his upper body and beard, clearing out a 6 foot radius of space as everyone else evacuated the premises. He wasn’t headed to an interview at Microsoft.
This is a feel-good gesture that will do more harm than good.
Let’s remember two things:
(1) People who need (and aren’t getting) mental health services are just as much a part of this city as you or me – and, have just as much of a need to get around town.
(2) People who would benefit from the ability to take transit include people without untreated mental health needs – families, kids, young and old people. Yes, even “Averages Joes/Janes.”
Let’s, please, have some compassion for people in situations much more difficult than yours – and a little bit of perspective. (I suppose you also drive directly from your garage at home to the garage at your office, in case you meet the Dredges of Society on the street corner?)
I just addressed this above, but to reiterate, the reason they’re on buses all day is they have no houses to live in. If we get on with affordable housing and wet houses and mental health services, they won’t be on the buses so much and the problem will evaporate. It’s our refusal to do these things at an adequate scale that’s causing these problems on buses and in parks and libraries.
You are probably correct, but in the meantime (or, likely forever in this country) the vast majority should not have to endure some often troublesome anti-social behavior. I think most people can be simultaneously empathetic and have reasonable expectations of decorum. I understand why the “bad” behavior is happening for the reasons you describe, but that doesn’t magically make it acceptable, or mean everyone should tolerate it.
If you make transit a homeless shelter/psychiatric hospital on wheels, then it becomes a thing of derision, or what “other” people use. Heck, ride transit almost anywhere else in the country and you get that feeling…we are very lucky to have a system in Seattle without (much) stigma.
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