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MPC: We Can Solve IL Infrastructure Woes via Higher Gas Tax, Vehicle Fees

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Looking east along the Green Line from Ashland. According to the RTA, about a third of the Chicago region’s transit network is not in a good state of repair. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

A new report by the Metropolitan Planning Council finds that Illinois needs to invest $43 billion over the next decade to get its roads, bridges, and transit lines in a state of good repair. This is a daunting number, especially for a state that has gone over nine months without a budget plan. However, the nonprofit argues that this goal is achievable if leaders recognize the importance of facing the problem head-on by creating a new funding stream, rather than dealing with the costly consequences of continuing to neglect our transportation network.

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Chart: MPC

“The $43 billion needed to rebuild and improve our transportation infrastructure is less than what we’re wasting today on vehicle repairs due to poor road conditions, time lost to traffic congestion, and population and jobs going to neighboring states,” said MPC senior fellow Jim Reilly in a statement. “To reverse these costly trends, we need a significant, reliable state revenue source dedicated to infrastructure investment.”

The new study notes that Illinois’ fixed, per-gallon gas tax was last raised in 1991. During the quarter of a century that followed, the purchasing power of the tax has dropped by over 40 percent. The average Illinois resident’s contribution to the gas tax fund has declined from the equivalent of $160 to less than $100 (in 2013 dollars). As a result, the state is spending 40 percent less money on transportation infrastructure than it did 25 years ago.

The report finds that, as a result of Illinois’ lack of investment in rebuilding infrastructure, one out of five roads in the state is in a state of disrepair. The group says twice as many roads will be in poor condition by 2021 if we continue this trend.

Similarly, the Regional Transportation Authority says that only about two-thirds of Chicagoland’s transit network is in a state of good repair. That will drop to less than half of the network by 2030 if we don’t take action.

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Actually, the Lincoln/Ashland/Belmont Remix Will Be a Major Improvement

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Before and after views of the intersection. Planned features include bumpouts, new crosswalks, bike lanes, and far-side bus stops.

Last week a ward staffer provided me with a preview of plans for the Lincoln/Ashland/Belmont reconstruction project. From what I gathered from that conversation, the Chicago Department of Transportation was planning a relatively conservative redesign of one of the North Side’s most dangerous intersections.

But at a public meeting about the initiative last week, I learned that it’s actually going to be somewhat bolder than I thought, with significant improvements for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users. The project also includes streetscaping work on Belmont between Ashland and Southport, and Lincoln from Melrose to Wellington, which will further improve conditions for walking.

During the hearing at St. Luke’s Church, 1500 West Belmont, CDOT’s complete streets manager Janet Attarian outlined the planned changes. She noted that Lincoln/Ashland Belmont was the 5th most dangerous intersection in the city in 2010, with 35 crashes.

New sidewalk bumpouts will be added on Lincoln and Ashland, which will narrow these streets at the intersection and shorten the turning radius for drivers, preventing high-speed turns. They will also improve sightlines and shorten pedestrian crossing distance. In addition, the bumpouts will help straighten out a kink in Lincoln which occurs at the six-way junction.

Left turns off of Lincoln will be banned. This will affect relatively few drivers, since these moves make up only 2-4% of traffic at the intersection, according to CDOT counts. During rush hours, left turns currently account for 8-16% of traffic on Lincoln.

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CNT: There’s Only One Parked Car for Every Three Units at Local Buildings

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Ontario and State in River North. Due to pre-TOD ordinance minimums, many downtown buildings have large pedestals of garage parking, much of which is unused. Image: Google Street View

A new report from the Center for Neighborhood Technology quantifies something that we already suspected to be true: Apartment buildings in the Chicago area tend to have way too much off-street car parking. The report, titled Stalled Out: How Empty Parking Spaces Diminish Neighborhood Affordability, points out that, since parking spots are surprisingly expensive to build, this surplus of spots drives up housing costs.

CNT has done similar parking studies in the San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. metro areas, including the creation of development of tools for predicting “right-size parking” in the latter two cities. This time around, they looked at 40 multiunit buildings on the North, South, and West Sides of Chicago, as well as northwest, west, and southwest Cook County suburbs, according to transit-oriented development manager Kyle Smith, the report’s author.

As in the other regions, the researchers did parking counts at the Chicagoland apartment buildings, both market-rate and subsidized, at 4:00 a.m., the peak time for parking use. Similar to what was observed in the other regions, they found that:

  • While the 40 buildings averaged two parking spots per every three units, only one space was being used per every three units.
  • The more parking spaces a building had, the higher the percentage that sat unused.
  • Apartments within a half mile of a high-frequency transit line, such as a CTA ‘L’ branch tended to have fewer spots, with only one space per two units. But even at those buildings, one-third of the spots weren’t used. Again, there was only one parked car for every three units.

The excess number of spaces reflects the fact that, while Chicago and many suburban municipalities require a minimum number of off-street spots in new developments, these minimums are somewhat arbitrary and don’t necessarily reflect actual demand.

This situation has improved somewhat in Chicago in recent years. In 2013 City Council passed the city’s first transit-oriented development, which halved the usual one-to-one parking ratio requirement for new buildings near rapid transit stops. Last year, a beefed-up version of the ordinance passed, which doubled the size of the TOD zones and completely waived the parking minimums. However, the usual parking minimums still apply outside of the TOD districts.

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CDOT Plans a (Conservative) Safety Overhaul of Belmont, Ashland and Lincoln

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The vast, crooked intersection is dangerous for all road users. Image: Google Street View

The six-way intersection of Belmont, Ashland, and Lincoln in Lakeview is one of the most confusing and scariest intersections on the North Side, especially for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The north and south legs of Lincoln don’t line up properly. The six-way junction is a massive expanse of asphalt, roughly 150 feet across at its widest point, creating a long exposure time for cyclists on the diagonal street, a recommended bike route. Pedestrians are forced to make as many as three street crossings to get where they need to go, using long, skewed crosswalks.

Not surprisingly, the intersection has a high crash rate. According to Steven Vance’s Chicago Crash Browser, based on state collision statistics, from 2009 to 2013 there were 185 total crashes at the intersection, including 12 in which bicyclists were injured, and five in which pedestrians were injured. The junction is sure to become even more chaotic in early 2017 when a new Whole Foods opens at the northeast corner with a whopping 300-plus car parking spaces.

In an effort to increase safety for all road users, enhance walkability and reduce the “barrier effect” of the intersection, The Chicago Department of Transportation will be making some safety improvements. It’s part of a larger streetscape project that also includes making the Lincoln Hub placemaking pilot, located two blocks southeast at Wellington/Southport/Lincoln, a permanent – though scaled-back – feature of Lakeview.

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The northern seating plaza of the Lincoln Hub. Photo: John Greenfield

CDOT will be holding a public hearing to discuss their plan next Tuesday, March 29, from 6-7:30 p.m. at St. Luke’s Church, 1500 West Belmont. Last Tuesday the department held a private meeting to outline the project with local aldermen Scott Waguespack, Tom Tunney, and Ameya Pawar, plus the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce and other neighborhood organizations.

Waguespack’s chief of Staff Paul Sajovec filled me in what was discussed at the recent meeting. CDOT considered making some fairly bold changes to Belmont/Ashland/Lincoln, including closing off Lincoln Avenue entirely in one direction or the other, Sajovec said. However, they ultimately decided to go with options that involve the least amount of changes to motor vehicle throughput, according to Sajovec.

It’s tempting to fault CDOT for prioritizing traffic flow over improvements that would maximize safety and walkability here. However, the changes to the intersection will require approval from the more conservative Illinois Department of Transportation. In addition, all three streets are bus routes (or will be, once the CTA’s #11 Lincoln route re-launches this year), so unless the redesign includes dedicated bus lanes, reducing throughput would slow down transit trips.

Moreover, from what Sajovec told me, some positive changes are planned. Curb extensions will be added to some of the six corners, shortening crossing distances for pedestrians. In addition, these will help reduce the kink in Lincoln.

Left turns from that diagonal street will be banned in both directions. That will allow bike lanes to be striped on Lincoln through the intersection, which will make pedaling across the vast expanse a little less nerve-wracking.

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RTA: Pace and Metra Operate Efficiently But Collect Little Rider Revenue

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Pace’s large service area and decreased ridership affects its service level financial solvency. Photo: mbernero/Flickr.

The Regional Transportation Authority’s newest report, issued last week, compares the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, and Pace, to their respective peers around the country. The report found that the CTA is efficient, relative to rapid transit systems in Atlanta, New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

The RTA also compared Metra, using 2014 performance figures, to New Jersey Transit, commuter rail in Philadelphia, commuter rail in Boston, and the Long Island Railroad and Metro North Railroad in greater New York City. RTA spokesperson Susan Massel said they excluded BART in San Francisco because it’s not in the top 10 largest metropolitan areas and “for each mode we chose only 5 peers, so we picked the five that were most comparable.”

Like the CTA’s ‘L’ system, Metra also ran an efficient service compared to its peers. The commuter rail agency ranked first or second in three operating costs metrics. Metra, however, spent a larger portion of its budget on vehicle operations than the average of the five others, and spends slightly less than average on maintenance.

Metra didn’t fare well on having good maintenance. It ranks fifth for having young vehicles in its fleet, and ranked fourth and below average for the average number of miles a vehicle traveled before breaking down. The RTA mentioned that Metra has finished bringing in new cars on the Metra Electric district line and has a plan to purchase new cars – instead of buying rider-friendly trains, they’re locking in an old design another 30 years – for its other lines. The breakdown rate was high in 2014, the report said, because of the polar vortex issues that shut down lines on a couple days in January.

Metra managed to rank worse on service level solvency. They collect far less in ticket revenue per passenger than their peers, suggesting that Metra is undercharging. Since 2014, Metra’s new administration – including a new board, board chair, and CEO – announced that fares would go up in 2015 and that they would raise fares on an annual basis.

Metra also competes with personal vehicles. Driving into downtown Chicago is cheaper than driving into Manhattan because there are no tolls within 20 miles of the Loop, and parking is relatively affordable. Low fares are good for riders, and may be commensurate with transit’s lower mode share here than in the East Coast cities, but they may also signal that growth in demand for transit in the Chicago region is slow or non-existent.

It’s better for riders and for the administration when fares are raised on a slow-but-steady basis, as opposed to significant increases every now and then. This allows Metra to better predict how much revenue it will raise and use that to strategize and plan for the long term, something they haven’t done in a while. This change also gave them the confidence to sell debt, for the first time, to help pay for those new (but old-fashioned) train cars.

Charts from the RTA's report show how Metra compares to five other commuter rail agencies in collecting revenues from riders.

Charts from the RTA’s report show how Metra compares to five other commuter rail agencies in collecting revenues from riders.

The Regional Transportation Authority also reviewed the performance of Pace suburban bus. They also liked at Pace’s vanpool and paratransit for seniors and people with disabilities, but those aren’t discussed here. Pace’s suburban bus operations seemed to largely mirror Metra’s commuter rail performance: they’re successful at keeping operating costs down, but they spend, on average, a larger portion of their budget on vehicle operations than their peers, and a smaller portion on maintenance.

Additionally, Pace’s fleet had a middle-of-the-road average vehicle age and a reasonably good average distance between bus breakdowns, relative to similar services in Orange County, California; Detroit; San Mateo County, California; New Yorks Nassau Inter-County Express; and San Francisco.

Again, like Metra, Pace’s suburban bus operations collects much less in ticket revenue per passenger than its peers. The RTA partly blames the free rides program, saying one in six trips is a free ride.

Comparing ridership, Pace ranks low because it has a larger geographic coverage area, serving the lowest population density area among its five peers. The report said, “lower population densities require Pace to operate approximately twice as much service to achieve similar ridership levels as the top performer” on the two ridership metrics. That’s on top of a 3.1 percent ridership decrease from 2013 to 2014, “following three years of consecutive growth.”

The report doesn’t discuss what kinds of population growth or declines each transit agency’s service area – here and in the peer cities – saw. Nor do they look into the land use changes or policies that affect each region’s potential to, ultimately, grow transit ridership. Other organizations have found that the Chicago region is still developing outside of the built up area, growing at a slower rate, and growing away from existing transit lines, all affecting transit usage and agency efficiencies.

These additions would give the metrics a stronger context, and help us assess whether the policies of the RTA, its three transit agencies, and state funding – or the lack thereof – are successful in growing ridership.

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RTA Report: CTA Runs an Efficient Transit System Compared to Peer Agencies

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The CTA has the youngest rapid transit train fleet in the country. Photo: CTA

This week, rapid transit headaches in Washington, D.C. and the Bay Area highlighted the need for better maintenance of U.S. public transportation infrastructure. However, a new report from Chicagoland’s Regional Transportation Authority suggests that the CTA is in a little better shape than its peers.

On Wednesday, the D.C. Metro system was completely shut down for 24 hours — with only one day’s notice — so that faulty electrical cables could be replaced.

That evening, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system experienced major delays. In an unusual move, a BART spokesman used Twitter to candidly discuss the difficulties of maintaining the system without proper investment.

Yesterday the RTA released its 2014 Sub-Regional Regional Peer Review performance report, which compares the CTA, Metra, and Pace, to transit systems in D.C., Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York City. The study found that “overall, the Chicago transit agencies performed well in 2014 in comparison to their peers.”

The RTA compared the three local transit agencies to their counterparts in five other cities. The report covers a range of performance measures: ones that affect passenger comfort and trip reliability, as well as the amount of investment in transit each region is making.

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Eyes on the Street: Concrete Pad for Bus Riders Installed in East Garfield

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It doesn’t look like much, but this new concrete parkway pad at the northeast corner of Fulton and Sacramento  (looking east) turned a muddy bus stop area into a proper place to wait. Photo: Steven Vance

People catching the Chicago Transit Authority’s 94-South California bus in East Garfield Park no longer have to wait for their ride in the dirt.

While most CTA bus stops at least offer customers concrete to stand on, if not a bench or a shelter, not every rider has an appropriately designed waiting area. Until recently, three #94 bus stops on the 2900 block of West Fulton had substandard stops.

While the #94 line generally runs north-south, it runs east-west on Fulton between California and Sacramento. At the bus stop near the southeast corner of Fulton/Sacramento, there used to be no concrete, except for a “courtesy walk” running perpendicular from the sidewalk. I noticed that a local man who uses a wheelchair had to wait for southbound bus on this narrow strip of pavement.

This CTA customer formerly had to wait for the southbound #94 bus in the narrow “courtesy walk” at the southeast corner of Fulton and Sacramento. The walk has been replaced with a wider concrete area.

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The man formerly had to alight the northbound bus in this muddy parkway at the northeast corner. Thanks to CDOT, there’s now a concrete pad here as well — see the top photo.

Worse, there was no concrete at all at the bus stop at the northeast corner, only an ugly, broken advertising bench. That meant the man had to roll his wheelchair off the bus into the sometimes-muddy parkway when returning home on the northbound bus.

This week, the Chicago Department of Transportation installed concrete “parkway pads” at both of these stops, plus a third southbound bus stop at the southwest corner of Fulton and Francisco. This provides a much better boarding and alighting situation for the man, and all other people who use these stops.

There don’t seem to be a lot of people using these bus stops, so it might not have been cost effective to install these pads from the standpoint of spending money in a manner that serves the most riders. However, all CTA customers should at least be provided with a dignified place to wait for the bus.

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Klein: Chicago’s Big Projects Show How Better Transit Access Boosts Livability

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Gabe Klein at last week’s talk. Photo: Kathleen Virginia Photography

At the Chicago Loop Alliance’s annual meeting last week, former transportation commission Gabe Klein discussed how he was able to apply private sector strategies to city government in order to quickly launch several major sustainable transportation projects during his 2.5-year tenure. He also talked about the general trend towards more efficient urban living, including transit-oriented development and the shared economy, fueled by new technologies.

At the start of the event, CLA board president David Broz provided announce transportation, urban planning, and placemaking initiatives the Loop Alliance will be sponsoring this year. In 2015, CLA had nine Springboard pedestrian counters installed along State Street between Congress and Wacker, and they plan to use the data to help encourage commercial development along the corridor, as well as improve the pedestrian experience on the street. This year, they’ll be adding six more counters in other parts of the Loop.

CLA will also be presenting the Downtown Futures Series, featuring talks about urban planning, transportation, data science, and technology. The series kicks off on April 14 with “Big Data. Big City,” featuring keynote speaker Charlie Catlett of University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory; followed by “Our Cities’ Autonomous Futures” with Lauren Isaac, Manager of Sustainable Transportation at Parsons Brinckeroff, on June 15; and “Experiential City” with Carol Coletta from The Kresge Foundation on September 14.

The popular ACTIVATE placemaking series will return this year for its third summer, with six arts-oriented parties held in downtown alleys between May and October. The location of each event will be announced a week prior.

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A juggler entertains at ACTIVATE Couch Place. Photo: Lisa Phillips

Klein, who recently published the book Startup-City, based on his experiences as an entrepreneur and the transportation chief for Chicago and Washington, D.C., started his talk by discussing how dense housing, transit, bicycle use, and the shared economy can help make cities work better.

“Postwar, we were all really sold on this idea of buying as much as possible, consuming as much as possible, the white picket fence, two cars, and now the big-screen TV,” he said. “But we can’t continue to consume at the same rate, and young people just don’t care about stuff as much as many of us did. And we’re not just focused on consuming less when it comes to buying stuff, but we’ve got to share space.”

He used the reconfiguration of Chicago’s Dearborn Street as an example of how public space was redistributed to work more efficiently. “We went from a street with three car lanes and an unenforced bus lane to a two-way protected bike lane, using new technology, using new turn lanes with sensors for the cars and the bikes triggering the lights,” he said. “We learned that throughput could be kept at almost the same level, while allocating space for active transportation.”

The redesign of Dearborn, which led to a 171 percent increase in biking on the street, is a great example of the principal of the concept of induced demand, Klein said. “People are understanding that now,” he said. “If people have bike lanes, what are people going to do? They’re going to ride their bikes. If you build more car lanes, you will fill them with cars. If you build a train, they will get on the train.”

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Will CMAP Stop Prioritizing Increasing Road Capacity in Next Regional Plan?

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The GO TO 2040 regional plan says we should encourage transit use, but CMAP’s policy would allow road binging projects if they cost a minimum of $100 million, while applying a $250 million threshold on other project types. Photo: David Grant

This is the second post in a two-part series on the upcoming ON TO 2050 regional plan. The first discussed public outreach goals for the new plan, and this one critiques its predecessor, GO TO 2040.

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning has launched the process to create the successor to the regional comprehensive plan, GO TO 2040. The new plan, called ON TO 2050, will illustrate with ideas, strategies, predictions, and research, what the region will be like in 2050, and how communities can get there.

GO TO 2040 is a good plan: it envisions a growing region, with an aim for sustainable, compact development in already developed areas, plus big gains in transit ridership, and bicycling and walking. What it did poorly is connect the dots between those goals and how municipalities, including Chicago, in the seven-county region can achieve them. Here are some of the praiseworthy aspects of GO TO 2040, as well as some of plan’s shortcomings.

“Parking pricing” is a strategy in GO TO 2040 to maximize the use of existing resources and reduce car dependence in a neighborhood. Liz Schuh, a principal policy analyst at CMAP and ON TO 2050 co-manager, said in a phone interview, “There hasn’t been much progress.” That doesn’t mean they haven’t made inroads.

In 2013, CMAP and Metropolitan Planning Council staff thoroughly analyzed the so-called parking crunch in the area administered by the Wicker Park-Bucktown Special Service Area, a business improvement district. They found that there’s plenty of unused, on-street parking, even during busy shopping or nightlife times, if only people were willing to walk an extra block or two to their destinations.

They recommended, among other ideas, testing congestion pricing in the area, with meter prices going up during high-demand periods, and falling during off-peak periods, in an effort to ensure that there’s almost always a space for the person willing to pay for it, which could reducing the amount of driving people do while searching for a spot.

Another area where GO TO 2040 has fallen short is detailing how to reach certain goals, like doubling transit ridership from 2 million daily rides to 4 million daily rides by the year 2040. The plan also recommends increasing the the proportion of residents who can walk to transit from home and work. The plan doesn’t say how the region can achieve these goals within the next couple of decades, beyond recommending that more transit service be provided and that new development should focus on existing developed areas, which would limit suburban sprawl. Sprawl persists.

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CMAP Launches Input Process for ON TO 2050, Chicago’s Next Regional Plan

Jane Grover speaks about ON TO 2050

Jane Grover, a former Evanston alder, is coordinating the community outreach for CMAP’s ON TO 2050 planning process.

This is part one of a two-part series about ON TO 2050, the new comprehensive regional plan for Chicagoland.

The official planning agency for the Chicagoland region is looking for your big ideas on what the region should look like – and how it could get there – in 2050. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning is drawing up a new plan to succeed the GO TO 2040 plan, which was released in 2010 after being unanimously approved by 284 municipalities. The next plan, called ON TO 2050, will be released in late 2018 or early 2019.

The federal government requires every urbanized area of 50,000 or more inhabitants to create a regional plan. At its core, the purpose of Chicago’s regional plan is to serve as a guide for how to generate and spend public transportation funds.

For example, since Chicagoland is a non-attainment region for air quality goals, CMAP can only spend federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program funds on projects if CMAP’s analysis finds that they would reduce air pollution. While CMAP has approved many CMAQ grants for sustainable transportation projects, unfortunately they’ve also awarded these funds to intersection widening projects, since these are believed to reduce idling and emissions.

This time around, though, CMAP wants to tweak the planning process. First, they want more community input. Local TV personality Geoffrey Baer, who has made documentaries the Chicago River and the city’s boulevard system, recently previewed the planning process on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight program two weeks ago. “This is the start of a process,” he said. “CMAP doesn’t have all the answers, and they don’t even have the questions.”

Last Wednesday CMAP hosted a launch event for the community input process at their office in the Sears Tower. “We want to reach into communities that aren’t typically represented, and translate the planning process to make sense to those who are affected by it,” said plan outreach coordinator Jane Grover, a former Evanston alder, during the presentation. “We want to find a good way to bring planning to life, and make it a reality.” Grover said she wants to involve high school students and chambers of commerce.

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