News

Slammed by critics, VTA strives to fix leadership

Transit agency considers dozens of ideas to improve governance amid criticism from public, grand jury report

Pretty much everyone seems to agree that the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority desperately needs a leadership fix — but where to start?

For one glimpse of the problem, take a look at the results of a recent public survey on the performance of the transit agency's 12-member board of directors. About 70% of respondents gave the VTA board low marks, particularly for being ineffective and clumsy at communication. Other withering feedback came from a recent civil grand jury report, which primarily blamed poor board leadership for causing VTA to become one of the most inefficient and dysfunctional transit agencies in the U.S.

VTA directors are now facing an immense challenge to prove they are steering the organization back on the right track, especially as voters are expected to decide in November on another transit tax. In the meantime, the transit agency's directors have taken some of the criticisms to heart, and they are pledging to get better.

On that matter, the VTA directors recently commissioned an independent review to evaluate ways to improve the transit agency's governance. The independent report, conducted by the consulting firm RSM, indicated that VTA's complex problems require some complex solutions — the review analyzed nearly 30 separate ideas to facilitate VTA's governance. This included simple fixes, such as better scheduling practices to ensure fewer missed board meetings, and also some more tricky proposals like reconfiguring the entrenched political system for appointing VTA directors.

Mountain View Councilman John McAlister, who serves on the VTA board and chairs the committee overseeing this report, said he agreed with pretty much everything.

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"VTA has a lot of work to get done," he said. "There's just this sense that the people who are getting appointed aren't the best, and if you don't have good people, then you don't get good results."

Previously, it has been nearly impossible to get board members to reflect on their own effectiveness. In 2016, transit agency staff sent out a survey questionnaire to board members, but only two members reportedly took the time to fill it out. A similar self-assessment survey sent out earlier this year reportedly received feedback from about half the members.

One key problem is the lack of engagement on the VTA board, which consists entirely of political appointees serving on city councils or the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Often, board members face a steep learning curve, and it doesn't help that they usually lack any experience in transportation, finance or management.

Many appointees also have a hard time separating their responsibility for improving countywide transportation from the local priorities of their political base. In particular, the San Jose City Council, which controls five seats on the VTA board, has been accused of hogging funding to prop up light rail and BART transit.

Many VTA members admit they're overwhelmed with too many responsibilities, making it impossible for them to read every staff report or attend every meeting. Some board members have extremely poor attendance — in some cases, members have skipped every meeting of committees they sit on. Supervisor Dave Cortese has attended barely more than 1 out of 4 board meetings since joining the VTA board in 2008, according to the agency's published statistics, which includes time when he served as an alternate board member.

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The independent review found there are several relatively easy fixes that VTA could implement. In particular, the board's 17 active committees could be consolidated, streamlined or eliminated to save time. Standing committees, which oversee responsibilities like capital projects or congestion management, should be given more authority to approve expenditures without bringing everything to the full board, the report recommended. Similarly, board members should face some minimum requirement for attendance, and consultants recommended each member should get an annual "scorecard" that grades their performance for things like participation, leadership and relevant knowledge.

Other needed board improvements would likely take more work. The consultant report pointed out VTA members needed to draft an updated master strategic plan, and use that to guide their future decision-making.

Most difficult of all, the independent report urged the VTA board to consider taking its process for appointing directors back to the drawing board. Prospective board members should be first vetted for their qualifications and commitments to ensure they can fulfill their duties before being nominated for the job, the report said.

The recommendations will be taken up by the full VTA board of directors at a future meeting.

Mark Noack writes for the Mountain View Voice, the sister publication of PaloAltoOnline.com.

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Slammed by critics, VTA strives to fix leadership

Transit agency considers dozens of ideas to improve governance amid criticism from public, grand jury report

by / Mountain View Voice

Uploaded: Thu, Jan 2, 2020, 12:17 pm

Pretty much everyone seems to agree that the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority desperately needs a leadership fix — but where to start?

For one glimpse of the problem, take a look at the results of a recent public survey on the performance of the transit agency's 12-member board of directors. About 70% of respondents gave the VTA board low marks, particularly for being ineffective and clumsy at communication. Other withering feedback came from a recent civil grand jury report, which primarily blamed poor board leadership for causing VTA to become one of the most inefficient and dysfunctional transit agencies in the U.S.

VTA directors are now facing an immense challenge to prove they are steering the organization back on the right track, especially as voters are expected to decide in November on another transit tax. In the meantime, the transit agency's directors have taken some of the criticisms to heart, and they are pledging to get better.

On that matter, the VTA directors recently commissioned an independent review to evaluate ways to improve the transit agency's governance. The independent report, conducted by the consulting firm RSM, indicated that VTA's complex problems require some complex solutions — the review analyzed nearly 30 separate ideas to facilitate VTA's governance. This included simple fixes, such as better scheduling practices to ensure fewer missed board meetings, and also some more tricky proposals like reconfiguring the entrenched political system for appointing VTA directors.

Mountain View Councilman John McAlister, who serves on the VTA board and chairs the committee overseeing this report, said he agreed with pretty much everything.

"VTA has a lot of work to get done," he said. "There's just this sense that the people who are getting appointed aren't the best, and if you don't have good people, then you don't get good results."

Previously, it has been nearly impossible to get board members to reflect on their own effectiveness. In 2016, transit agency staff sent out a survey questionnaire to board members, but only two members reportedly took the time to fill it out. A similar self-assessment survey sent out earlier this year reportedly received feedback from about half the members.

One key problem is the lack of engagement on the VTA board, which consists entirely of political appointees serving on city councils or the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Often, board members face a steep learning curve, and it doesn't help that they usually lack any experience in transportation, finance or management.

Many appointees also have a hard time separating their responsibility for improving countywide transportation from the local priorities of their political base. In particular, the San Jose City Council, which controls five seats on the VTA board, has been accused of hogging funding to prop up light rail and BART transit.

Many VTA members admit they're overwhelmed with too many responsibilities, making it impossible for them to read every staff report or attend every meeting. Some board members have extremely poor attendance — in some cases, members have skipped every meeting of committees they sit on. Supervisor Dave Cortese has attended barely more than 1 out of 4 board meetings since joining the VTA board in 2008, according to the agency's published statistics, which includes time when he served as an alternate board member.

The independent review found there are several relatively easy fixes that VTA could implement. In particular, the board's 17 active committees could be consolidated, streamlined or eliminated to save time. Standing committees, which oversee responsibilities like capital projects or congestion management, should be given more authority to approve expenditures without bringing everything to the full board, the report recommended. Similarly, board members should face some minimum requirement for attendance, and consultants recommended each member should get an annual "scorecard" that grades their performance for things like participation, leadership and relevant knowledge.

Other needed board improvements would likely take more work. The consultant report pointed out VTA members needed to draft an updated master strategic plan, and use that to guide their future decision-making.

Most difficult of all, the independent report urged the VTA board to consider taking its process for appointing directors back to the drawing board. Prospective board members should be first vetted for their qualifications and commitments to ensure they can fulfill their duties before being nominated for the job, the report said.

The recommendations will be taken up by the full VTA board of directors at a future meeting.

Mark Noack writes for the Mountain View Voice, the sister publication of PaloAltoOnline.com.

Comments

resident
Mountain View
on Jan 2, 2020 at 12:59 pm
resident, Mountain View
on Jan 2, 2020 at 12:59 pm

VTA really needs to merge with SamTrans. Serving only half of the peninsula does noone any good. Making Mountain View residents pay two fares to transfer to SamTrans to get to the SFO airport or to San Francisco really discourages public transit use. Right now, VTA focuses too much on San Jose and the rest of Silicon Valley has terrible public transit.


Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2020 at 3:05 pm
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2020 at 3:05 pm

I completely agree with the previous poster.

I would add that Caltrain is also part of the mix as well as looking into ferry and cross bay bus routes, coastal routes to the 101 corridor and express shuttles to both airports.

Accordingly, I would suggest getting someone with experience in running transit, perhaps someone even from Google, to run all SFBay regional transit. Get rid of all the various managements that are being duplicated by having too many agencies, and start looking at transportation as an efficient alternative to solo driving, rather than something to help out lower income, seniors, or those who have all day to sit around waiting and riding a bus. We need some high tech methods to serve the community to help reduce traffic congestion everywhere.


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2020 at 9:21 pm
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2020 at 9:21 pm

I have to be a contrarian on this one. VTA's biggest problem is not its "governance" processes. It is geography. With the exception of the historical Caltrain corridor, Santa Clara County was built to the Broadacre City concept. It is a huge grid of expressways, with mixed use spread everywhere, shopping malls, low-density industrial/office complexes, and low-density residential. Lately, concentrations of office and housing have sprouted here and there, but, there is no way that any bus system is going to compete with autos on door-to-door time. VTA has to pick its opportunities better. There is just no point in investing in things that not enough people will use because of geography. Web Link


Santa Clara
another community
on Jan 3, 2020 at 9:29 am
Santa Clara , another community
on Jan 3, 2020 at 9:29 am

did anyone who commented prior read the article? the problem absolutely is governance of VTA and the article listed the many reasons why. directors and appointees that are unqualified or inexperienced about public transit, San Jose board members using their positions to steer County resources for San Jose only instead of the entire county for which VTA was purposed, and dual roles for vta board members that results in excess workload. vta is a county agency of the South Bay and Lower Peninsula and Girloy Corridor. vta was not intended for use go directly to SFO, especially as the 3 counties of San mateo and Santa Clara and San Francisco already fund Caltrain. no, Sam trans does not need to merge with VTA, because Daly City and Pacifica are in San mateo County while Los Gatos and Morgan Hill are in Santa Clara County. there is no need to make VTA worse Than it severely already is. thank goodness for Lyft and ride share or else silicon valley people would be desperately doomed. fire all the board members of VTA and appoint elect new ones that have no conflict of interest with town politics so that VTA becomes a true public service to all of Santa Clara County. perhaps Morgan Hill, San Marin, and Gilroy could be a single representative since those towns aren't in silicon valley and are so sparse. the grid of roads and circular light rail routes and weaving bus routes are due to decisions by VTA members, so the people is almost entirely people and little to do with geography, especially as silicon valley has expansive flat areas. icr.org


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 3, 2020 at 9:30 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jan 3, 2020 at 9:30 am

No more money for these incompetent fools who never learn from their mistakes. First they put a Middlefield bus stop 3 car lengths from Embarcxadero, causing cars to get stuck in the intersection since no one could go around the bus due to the ridiculous bollards.

Now they've put bus stops ONE car length from intersections at Midtown.

So tired of getting stuck behind the EMPTY DOUBLE-length buses,

Will Mr. Fine, PA's VTA rep, do anything about these dangerous and stupid practices??? Still waiting for a response from him about the dangerous Jordan "improvements." Tick tock tick tock.


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 3, 2020 at 9:55 am
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 3, 2020 at 9:55 am

Posted by Santa Clara, a resident of another community

>> did anyone who commented prior read the article?

"anyone" meaning me? Yes, I did. I just don't agree with the conclusion.

>> the grid of roads and circular light rail routes and weaving bus routes are due to decisions by VTA members, so the people is almost entirely people and little to do with geography, especially as silicon valley has expansive flat areas.

You have it exactly backwards. The utilization of the large "expansive flat areas" with low-density mixed jobs/commercial/residential, IS the problem. Caltrain works on the Peninsula because the historical railroad route and constraint along the bay side of the Peninsula resulted in an unplanned linear city. Santa Clara County was very deliberately planned in the postwar auto era to follow the suburban matrix model AKA "Broadacre City". That is why at rush hour you can get to and from any downtown along the Peninsula faster via Caltrain than by car. There is just no way for VTA to design a system to serve most of SCC the same way. Cars are always way faster end-to-end.
(Yes, I've tried it personally in the past.). That's your geography. That's why VTA ridership is so low and farebox collection ratio dismal. Right now, VTA at least does an OK job of serving downtown San Jose. The proposed governance changes might actually make things worse.

Here's your thought experiment: -you- design a system that will have high utilization yourself. I would like to see your design, and how it works so much better than what VTA has today. Governance changes won't fix the geography problem.



Resident
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 3, 2020 at 10:15 am
Resident, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 3, 2020 at 10:15 am

One of the advantages of Silicon Valley and consequently Santa Clara county, is the fact that there is not a central location where everyone wants to get in the am commute and everyone wants to leave in the pm commute. Caltrain ridership is not one way, as riders are getting on and off at practically every station.

It is time VTA followed through making the commutes work both ways. eg, Google to Foothill College. A two way commute route that I believe works well but could be improved and copied.


Family Friendly
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 3, 2020 at 10:24 am
Family Friendly, Old Palo Alto
on Jan 3, 2020 at 10:24 am

We should just ditch VTA and work with Stanford to expand Marguerite all over town. Kids could take it to school, and seniors could take it to run errands.

That's something that would actually help Palo Alto, and even save lives.


The VTA Board is a HUGE problem.
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 3, 2020 at 12:45 pm
The VTA Board is a HUGE problem., Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jan 3, 2020 at 12:45 pm

San Jose control of the VTA Board is a HUGE problem. Palo Alto shares one board seat with two other cities. That means Palo Alto has only one voting member on the board once every three years. San Jose has five board members every single year. This is how they control the board. This is why VTA spending focuses on San Jose and south county.

San Jose consistently uses their power to divert our tax dollars to their own interests. I have been to many VTA meetings (ALWAYS held in downtown San Jose, so it's really difficult to get to the meetings if you live in north county) where they simply dismissed north county needs.

All of this must change or I will NEVER vote for one more red cent for VTA. NEVER, VTA. Are you listening, VTA? I no longer trust you. And I, generally, am a transit supporter.


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 3, 2020 at 1:15 pm
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 3, 2020 at 1:15 pm

Posted by The VTA Board is a HUGE problem., a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis

>> San Jose consistently uses their power to divert our tax dollars to their own interests.

At least San Jose is getting some utility from VTA. I don't mind paying some taxes for VTA, although, I do mind paying -sales taxes- .

>> All of this must change or I will NEVER vote for one more red cent for VTA. NEVER, VTA. Are you listening, VTA? I no longer trust you. And I, generally, am a transit supporter.

I always vote against sales tax "transportation", but, taxes go for one thing or another. There is no single "Caltrain tax" or "VTA" tax, although there is, or was (I'm not sure how it plays today), a dedicated BART tax. I always vote against sales taxes, but, I don't get the option of picking which programs get supported and which don't. In my opinion, highways the worst spending, BART is the most wasteful system, VTA probably the least cost-effective per rider-mile. But, they didn't let me pick and choose.


Anonymous
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 3, 2020 at 8:00 pm
Anonymous, Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 3, 2020 at 8:00 pm

I completely agree that those of us in northern Santa Clara County are seen as a cash cow for San Jose and middle to southern Santa Clara County. It ISN’T fair. j


Paul
Menlo Park
on Jan 3, 2020 at 8:08 pm
Paul , Menlo Park
on Jan 3, 2020 at 8:08 pm

Any chance of getting an El Camino line that crosses the county line without stopping at the rail center in Palo Alto? I’d gladly take the bus and forgo driving on the El Camino if I could go from Menlo Park to PA in a straight shot.


Steve Ly
Los Altos
on Jan 4, 2020 at 9:05 am
Steve Ly, Los Altos
on Jan 4, 2020 at 9:05 am

As we are discussing VTA's board structured and the shortcomings of Bay Area Transit, be advised that the usual suspects are back asking for money. This “mega-measure” nonsense is quite annoying. Vote NO. Over the last several elections, voters in Santa Clara County have passed multiple tax and fee increases including gas taxes, two bridge toll increases, three VTA sales taxes, Santa Clara County’s Measure A 1/8 cent sales tax, the state prop 30 ¼ cent sales tax and the 2010 Measure B Vehicle Registration Fee of $10. Additionally, we’re on the hook to pay back numerous state bond issues including high speed rail, the Proposition 1 water bond and the infrastructure bonds of 2006.

All this nickel and diming has contributed into making the Bay Area a horribly expensive place to live; especially for people of modest means, who must pay the greatest percentage of their income in these regressive taxes and fees. Each increase by itself does not amount to much, say a quarter cent, but the cumulative effect is to add to the unaffordability of the region.

Before increasing taxes YET AGAIN, waste needs to be removed from transportation projects. For example, we need to eliminate the redundant and wasteful section of the BART extension between the San Jose and Santa Clara Caltrain stations. The BART segment from these stations would duplicate both the existing Caltrain line and VTA's 22 and 522 buses to a station that has approximately 1000 riders each weekday.

Why don’t the wealthy high rollers in the “Leadership Group” suggest taxing their rich companies and leave the little guy alone for a change? Sede Web Link


senior
Midtown
on Jan 4, 2020 at 9:59 am
senior, Midtown
on Jan 4, 2020 at 9:59 am

Paul, VTA used to have the 22 go into Menlo Park Caltrain on some of its runs. Some of us fought hard to have that continue, but we failed.


musical
Palo Verde
on Jan 4, 2020 at 12:59 pm
musical, Palo Verde
on Jan 4, 2020 at 12:59 pm

And I recall Samtrans extending to Palo Alto Square (ECR & Page Mill).
The 7F was my default to SFO.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 4, 2020 at 3:01 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jan 4, 2020 at 3:01 pm

Maybe before we waste more money screwing up the roads and preaching about the wonders of public transit and how people really really want a car-light future, we can inject some reality into the decisions. Just a thought.


Canceled trips and stranded riders as Bay Area grapples with bus driver shortage

Web Link

....But while VTA has acknowledged that a lack of drivers was to blame for missed trips that have caused riders to grumble on social media, system officials place the blame on drivers calling in sick or other unplanned absences, not a lack of new drivers getting hired."


Edward
College Terrace
on Jan 4, 2020 at 3:52 pm
Edward, College Terrace
on Jan 4, 2020 at 3:52 pm

VTA has been one of the worst rated mass transit agencies in the country for many years. Nothing new here, but another affirmation of the waste and misuse of tax funds.

For many years now, VTA has teamed up with Silicon Valley Leadership Group to raise local taxes to pay for improvements to mass transit. SVLG is a lobbying organization hired by some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, located right here, to help insure that residents get stiffed with 100% of the bill for infrastructure those companies need to get their rising number of employees to work. For many years now, that has meant that various transportation taxes for a wide range of projects has quietly been redirected to extending BART to Alum Rock, leaving the $4B BART tunnel to the downtown San Jose rail station still an incomplete project. SVLG is presently trying to get voters to raise the regional sales tax another 1% to pay for their pet projects. I will vote no.

I do agree with some posters, and think that the bay area might be better served by one regional mass Transit agency, rather than the poorly functioning county agencies, like VTA, that we have now.


secession from San Jose
another community
on Jan 5, 2020 at 12:08 am
secession from San Jose , another community
on Jan 5, 2020 at 12:08 am

don't confuse population density with topography and geography. one of the biggest mistakes with vta light rail was that the permanent rail infrastructure was built along sparsely populated areas, some of which were then onion fields, unlike conventional logic to build public transit following higher-density areas and significant commercial/ industrial centers. the flatness of silicon valley actually is conducive to building transportation infrastructure.

the idea to not make changes to VTA governance is basically saying that there is no problem and the board members who r not serving the public competently should not be held accountable. well, VTA placed dead last in the country when the top ten metropolitan transit agencies in the country were ranked in terms of operating cost efficiency and ridership utilization.

if riders from lower San mateo County want public transit further into Santa Clara County that isn't Caltrain, then that is Samtrans responsibility and not vta. taxpayers of the county must directly benefit. Samtrans sends buses to San Francisco, and so can decide to send buses into Santa Clara County also. the western bay area economy is just heavier at the top (sf) and bottom (silicon valley) and lighter in between.

San Jose board members manipulating vta to the benefit of San Jose alone isn't as beneficial as that sounds to even the people of San Jose. as the writer of the article points out, East San Jose is less than 3 miles from downtown sj and yet light rail tracks were built like semicircle going circuitously about 14 miles, with excruciatingly slow speed due to lack of grade separation that trains need to be better than buses.

train advantage over vehicle transportation has a lot to do with momentum from speed. trains need a lot linear distance to generate that speed, which can be attained by grade separation. when that's the case, trains are efficient at connecting long distances. Bart and Caltrain are an example as their routes are unimpeded over multiple counties. but vta light rail stops at intersections and traffic signals and crawls within downtown sj, rendering its effect like that or most buses due to lack of grade separation. vta light rail has been built effectively as a massively expensive bus system with steel wheels on tracks. vta negated the advantages of rail transport while keeping light rail superficially looking like a train system.

lest we forget, only in 2019 did vta stop charging for bus transfers while transit agencies across the country had long included transfers in fares. before this and to some extent even now, the amount of time required for each dollar spent was enormous to the point that the pooled/shared services of Lyft and Uber were cheaper and faster.

awful how all those vta buses that dropped off people to the great mall will be diverted to the Bart milpitas station, which is a significant walking distance from great mall, requiring a person to traverse almost 8 lanes of Montague ex and then the expansive parking lot surrounding great mall. very very bad idea I think. more people probably rode buses into the great mall than the number who will use buses to get to Bart milpitas station which is redundantly served by VTA light rail also. most people's final stop is not a transit station. they r trying to get to actual destinations, like businesses.

before getting on vta, calculate how much you'll need to spend and then how much time vta wants to take from your life. that's the ratio that will be your guide. if one needs to spend at VTA $2.50 for 4 hours of transit, that is 1.6 hours removed from life per $1. Ride Lyft or uber and pay $15 for 25 minutes, the ratio is .028hours per $1


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 5, 2020 at 5:13 pm
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 5, 2020 at 5:13 pm

Posted by secession from San Jose, a resident of another community

>> don't confuse population density with topography and geography.

"secession", I like your post, but, when I studied geography in school, it included population density and a whole lot more human-related info, not just the physical characteristics. Here is what the dictionary says:

ge•og•ra•phy jē-ŏg′rə-fē
n. The study of the earth and its features and of the distribution of life on the earth, including human life and the effects of human activity.
n. The physical characteristics, especially the surface features, of an area.
n. A book on geography.

I agree 100% with your observation that public transit works when it connects high-densities of jobs, housing, and shopping. Except for the Garlic Festival, there generally aren't many transit trips to the fields.


Michael
another community
on Jan 6, 2020 at 2:22 pm
Michael , another community
on Jan 6, 2020 at 2:22 pm

Regarding: "if riders from lower San mateo County want public transit further into Santa Clara County that isn't Caltrain, then that is Samtrans responsibility and not vta. taxpayers of the county must directly benefit." This first sentence may be true, or rather, that is a choice that Santa Clara County can make if it wishes. But the second sentence contradicts the first. Those from outside the county are free to choose transit (such as it is) or drive their own cars to their destinations. If they drive, those cars add to congestion and climate emissions in Santa Clara County. All the local agencies should be investing in regional transit in order to make life better for everyone.


Alex
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 9, 2020 at 10:51 pm
Alex, Old Palo Alto
on Jan 9, 2020 at 10:51 pm

I am a Santa Clara County resident and I don't like the fact I pay for various sales tax measures that subsidizes the construction of the BART extension to San Jose. Let Alameda and Contra Costa pay for it because they are the ones that commutes to our area. We in Santa Clara will unlikely use that system to go up to the East Bay.


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