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Transit For The St Louis Region

November 10, 2008 Downtown 20 Comments

Continuing the dialog about the future of mass transit given the recent failure of Prop M in St Louis County (see post), I want to first focus on the continued idea of a regional approach to transit. When light rail proponents first started their efforts in the 1980s the region wasn’t the size it is today — we’ve sprawled out considerably since then.

Above: The 8-county St Louis MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area).  Image Source: Wiki
Above: The 12-county St Louis MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area). Image Source: Wiki

For census purposes, the St Louis region contains 12 counties — 8 in Missouri (remember the city is a county too) and four in Illinois. We are not going to have a true regional system without trillions of dollars for infrastructure & operations. Serving the entire region with bus &/or rail service just isn’t practical. The phrase “regional system” needs to stop being used because that misrepresents what we do have and what we might expect in the future.

Bi-State Development Agency (aka Metro) was formed in 1949. Sixty years ago the system in place did serve much of the then smaller region. It still covers the same three counties – St Louis City, St Louis County and St Clair County in Illinois. By some counts it serves a couple more parts of Illinois. But while the region has ballooned the coverage area of Metro has remained basically the same. This makes sense though as the additional counties now considered part of our region just are too sprawling to make mass transit (bus or rail) cost prohibitive. We don’t have a regional transit system.

Even efficiently serving all of St Louis County isn’t realistic. Eureka Missouri in the Southwest part of the county is 30 miles from downtown. Thirty! If I were a voter in Eureka I probably would have voted against the sales tax hike because I would realize that transit would never reach me. I dare say that many in places like Eureka don’t want transit anyway. This is not to pick on Eureka, it is just so far removed from the urban core of the region. Why pay for that from which you will never benefit?

Above: St Louis County.  This graphic shows fire districts.  The county has 6 council districts, 91 municipalities, numerous school districts and so on.   Image source: St Louis County.
Above: St Louis County. This graphic shows fire districts. The county has 6 council districts, 91 municipalities, numerous school districts and so on. Image source: St Louis County.

As the graphic of St Louis County (above) shows, it is quite large and parts are a considerable distance from the city (the Eureka example). The County has an area of 524 square miles vs 66.2 square miles for the city. You could fit the city into the county nearly 8 times. The city is just 11% of the combined area of the city & county but we have 20% of the population for the two areas. Looking at the 12-county region the picture is the same, we have a greater percent of the population relative to the land consumed.

Older inner-ring municipalities in the County are similar in that their density is higher than that of the outer edges of our region. Many of these older inner-ring munys were started back when the region was served by electric streetcars. The are reasonably dense, compact and for the most part, walkable. Examples include University City, Maplewood and Ferguson.

Last week I said “F the county” after they refused to approve Prop M. Tom Shrout of CMT (Citizens for Modern Transit) suggested here that we create a transit district inside I-270. This approach makes great sense. Had the city’s municipal boundaries not been fixed in place in 1876 we could reasonably have expected the city to grow & annex itself outward to roughly where I-270 is today.

But I still desire a more compact system. Perhaps to something roughly equal to inside I-170. What this is about is figuring out how we define the “core” of the region. Certainly the city is in the core but the core is bigger than just the city.  Lindbergh Blvd might make a better Western & Southern border for such a transit district, with I-270 to the North.

This is not to say that transit vehicles must be limited to being inside the boundary. Madison County Illinois funds a nice bus system that leaves their county as it connects to East St Louis (St Clair County) and downtown St Louis. A core system funded inside Lindbergh, for example, might still make trips to say Westport.

The thing to do is figure out where it makes sense to provide transit service (bus/rail) and then seek funding from people in that limited area only, disregarding the many municipal borders. I personally envision a great system as far out as I-170 with very little beyond that. Places like Westport and West County Center, however, do create a legit need for mass transit. A modified approach would be a two-level system. The center part to I-170 would pay a higher rate for a higher level of service compared to the area between I-170 & I-270.

Given our mobility I would not necessarily use sales taxes as the basis for funding the infrastructure & operations. Property tax might be a better mechanism as that is tied to the geography of those that would benefit from the transit service.

The other part of the equation is the type of service — bus or rail. I’ve made it clear numerous times I’m an advocate of the humble streetcar. Not light rail in the street — just basic streetcar rail service. I also don’t mind the bus. Each has its place and good systems use bus, streetcar & light rail to meet various needs. Our core cannot effectively be served by only one or two of these choices.

As Jim Zavist has pointed out numerous times, our region has the perception of the bus that it is only for the poor. That is likely due to the fact that the system we have is so infrequent that those with greater means use other choices such as a personal car, leaving only the poor as the main users. Perceptions are hard to overcome. Straightening out the bus routes (hard to do given some of our roads) and increasing the frequency of the bus would certainly improve the perception & reality. A 45-minute transit ride for something that takes 10-15 minutes by car is not realistic. I can accept up to twice as long as a private car but not much longer. Waiting an hour for the next bus isn’t going to cut it for anyone with the means to drive to their destination. This applies to any form of transit — bus or rail.

An advantage of bus over fixed rail is the flexibility to deviate from a set route. This is also a major drawback as bus lines have a tendency to get altered and re-routed to the point a new user has not clue where the bus goes. If you approach a streetcar line in a strange city you see the track & wires. You know it doesn’t turn right at the next corner, it will follow the track.

Toronto is one of a handful of North American cities that didn’t ditch its streetcar system. When I was there in July 2006 it served me well for seeing much of the city. It also served the local population well and the blocks along the various lines were highly active.  The way people use space along streetcar lines is very different than how they use space adjacent to a bus or even a light rail line.   Blocks immediately adjacent to streetcar lines are more active, more animated.  We are long past the days of 100% of our transit system being in the form of the streetcar. But we do have corridors where I believe the streetcar would serve as a catalyst for new development, creating a linear string of density.  An example, that I’ve articulated before, would be Olive heading West from downtown, jumping North to Delmar at Vandeventer or Sarah and then continuing West on Delmar to the loop.

Another is a Chouteau/Manchester line.  Start at the 14th street transit connection, go South to Chouteau & turn West.  Stay Westbound on Chouteau until it becomes Manchester at Vandeventer.  Take Manchester West through this part of the city, Maplewood, Brentwood, and Kirkwood.  End at Lindbergh or even West County Center.  Mandate high density future development along the route to justify the infrastructure investment.  Someone may still choose to drive end to end as that would still be faster but we’ll see many more users taking the line for trips 2-5 miles in either direction from where they live along the line. In Maplewood the line would intersect with an existing MetroLink light rail station.

Some may say just do that with a bus instead as they are cheaper. True, they are.   But the bus is not going to spur high-density development along its route the way a fixed route streetcar + zoning is going to.  This transit line would go deep into West County and connect to nearby residential areas along an existing corridor that is ripe for more urbanity & density.  Voters in these areas would get something real & tangible for their contribution to the total system.

Similarly, in the city, I’d run a line out MLK to the city limits and beyond on St Charles Rock Road.  This might loop back around at Northwest Plaza Mall.  Like Manchester, St Charles Rock Road is wide, has adjacent land suitable for higher density mixed-use development as well as lots of housing a short walk from the street.  This streetcar would also intersect with and connect to the existing light rail line.  It would not necessarily represent the fastest route to downtown but it would permit someone in St Ann to go a few miles from their home easily.

More importantly streetcars along such major routes in both the city and nearby county municipalities would  help to tie them together, erasing dividing borders along the route.  This would then begin to approach a core system for the core of our region, something the city and inner county could finance.


Currently there are "20 comments" on this Article:

  1. southsider says:

    What you propose sounds like a good starting point. Perhaps the next step is to overlay where the jobs are.

    [slp — Yes, jobs is certainly one factor to consider. However, trips to the store, dinner, movies, etc generate many car miles every day. Streetcars along major streets will help offset these miles normally driven by a car — that 1.5 mile drive to the store for milk, for example.]

  2. Jim Zavist says:

    As always, I agree with some, but not all, of your assumptions and conclusions. My two biggest differences today are the assumptions that a big district doesn’t make sense/can’t work and that a streetcar will attract more riders than a bus.
    A big(ger) district won’t work if you assume a one-size-fits-all solution to how service is delivered. Any of the bigger districts around the country use a range of alternatives. Toronto, in addition to its streetcars, uses heavy rail (like Amtrak), light rail and a fleet of 1,600 buses to serve its customers. New Jersey Transit, which provides commuter service into both NYC and Philadelphia, has a fleet of more than 3,000 buses. Denver includes in its 1,000-bus fleet, a fleet of over-the-road (Greyhound-type) buses to serve longer commuter runs, like commuter service from Eureka to downtown would require to be successful. The city of Boulder subsidizes frequent bus service with smaller buses. LA has invested heavily in bus rapid transit. More than 9 million people – one-third of California’s residents – live, work, and play within its 1,433-square-mile service area. Chicago, in addition to CTA’s 2,200 buses, has its commuter trains from its many suburbs. San Francisco has BART that intersects with multiple local bus routes. Metro, in contrast has only 389 buses!
    Likely a bigger challenge for the St. Louis region is that a declining percentage of our jobs are located downtown, and more and more are being located in low-density suburban areas. Transit works best when there’s density at one (or both) end(s) of the trip. Cities like Chicago and Toronto, with thriving downtowns and congested traffic and expensive parking, can and do attract more riders to public transit – it’s a pretty straight-forward cost versus time benefit calculation. I’ve lived here 4 years and worked at four different sites, none of which has been attractive to access by transit – I tried, I know how to research the system, but the alternatives were always at least three times as long as driving to a job with free parking in Clayton or Olivette or St. Charles County! And from what I can tell from my employers, the two big reasons they choose the county over the city are the city earnings tax and the perception/reality that crime is a big and growing problem in the the city.
    In many places (LA, DC, Denver), virtual density is created with park-and-ride lots. Instead of trying to capture the suburban commuter at their front door, people drive a few miles to a large parking lot where frequent express service (bus and/or rail) is available into downtown. While we have some good-sized parking lots, the service available usually isn’t a big improvement over driving. By the time you’ve driven to the Shrewsbury or the Brentwood station from out in one of the counties, you’re more than half way downtown, and the train takes the long way through Clayton. If you park at the Ballas Transit Center, your bus is in the same traffic you’d be driving in. In other cities, HOV lanes provide a time incentive to both bus riders and carpools, but not so here. (It’ll be interesting, however, to see how things play out with the second half of the Highway 40 closure – there’s a lot of potential to attract commuters to Metrolink at the Brentwood station.)
    And for the daily commuter, the type of vehicle (train, bus, streetcar or pedicab) is much less important than frequency, predictability, cleanliness, comfort and safety. If I can ride without worrying about a schedule, that’s great. It takes a lot of the angst out of having to transfer, which is a reality unless your destination is the hub of the system. If the buses are clean and the A/C or heat works (which is typically the case here), I’m happy. If my employer subsidises my monthly pass, that’s a bonus. So for me, instead of investing, say, $10 million in new streetcars, I’d invest the same money in buying more buses and providing more-frequent service on more routes. Unfortunately, the opposite is going to happen. Metro is going to have to cut back on routes, leaving many riders with the reality that their bad service is now non-existent. Like many things in St. Louis, it’s great to have a utopian vision of what our city can and should be, but we first need to accept and address the reality that we have a loooong way to go to just fix the basic infrastructure before we can add some much-needed bling!

  3. JMedwick says:

    Jim rightly points out that any transportation system is inexorably tied to important land use decisions. So long as businesses are willing to string out along major arterial and conglomerate at highway intersections, it makes it much harder for transit to function well. This is why a key part of any long term transportation plan for the region is to:
    A. Only fund light rail expansions to municipalities that sign on to revised land use codes that capitalize on the transit infrastructure;and
    B. State capital funding through transit village initiatives that encourage such land use code revisions.

  4. Tim says:

    I’d like to know if a profit can me made from a mass transit system. How much would you have to charge to ride it? I’m going out on a limb here but I’m guessing if you can’t make a profit doing something then it’s the voice of the people telling you they don’t want your service. It hardly seems fair to make me pay for something peoople don’t even want.

  5. Matt says:

    ^I don’t see many roads making a profit. In fact, we are pouring tax dollars into massive losing ventures on road construction all the time. Roads we now can not afford to maintain. Road, AMTRAK and transit Infrastructure (except for some toll ways) doesn’t make money. So not making a profit is no reason not to invest in transit.

  6. Tim says:

    I don’t call it “investment” when someone takes my money and spends it in ways other than I would, you know, like on food, clothing housing, etc. Roads can make a profit, just ask the Hoosier state.

  7. JMedwick says:


    It is true that roads can make a profit in some circumstances, such as the NJ Turnpike. However, the system as a whole does not currently cover either the capital or operational costs of the national road network.

  8. Tim says:

    “National road network”. I hate to nit pick, wait, yes I do, there is no such thing as a “national road network”. The states operate the Interstate system and pay for it while under the threat of not getting Federal money from other states for not lowering speed limits and drinking ages. The only “national roads” are within National Parks.

  9. Jim Zavist says:

    The St. Louis MSA has 2.8 million residents; the Denver MSA has 2.5. Metro carried 53 million passengers last year; Denver’s RTD carried 93 million. The twelve-county St. Louis MSA contains 5331 square miles; Metro serves only 1254 square miles of it. The eight-county Denver MSA contains 3760 square miles; its transit district serves 2331 square miles of it. Duh, there appears to be a direct correlation between the size of the service area and the number of passengers carried!
    The real densities in Denver and St. Louis are pretty similar – they both have higher-density downtowns and a whole lot of less-dense suburban sprawl that tapers off to rural fringe areas. They both rely heavily on freeways to move commuters. The big difference is that Metrobus, especially on the Missouri side is viewed as much more of an urban, city-serving animal. Its average daily bus ridership is 104,245 compared to RTD’s 205,365 adr’s. In contrast, Metrolink here is currently 30% longer (46 miles vs. 35) and carries MORE riders, 67,684 adr’s vs. 55,717 adr’s in Denver.
    THE fundamental difference between Denver and St. Louis is our suburban transit services, or more precisely, our lack thereof. The only apparent way to convince suburban voters to support public transit is to give them the types of transit services that work for them. The idea of limiting Metro services to just the areas inside 270 simply won’t be sustainable financially or politically. In contrast, metro Denver’s voters supported an increase in their sales tax to a full 1%, devoted exclusively to public transit, primarily because 122 miles of new rail will be built in the next decade. Come up with an audacious plan like that here, and you just might convince the folks in CHesterfield and St. Charles to come on board.

  10. john says:

    The region needs an efficient transportation system which should include light rail among other alternatives. However, the agency and our political leadership recognizes that the City alone can’t come close to financing the future needs of Metro. In its annual report, Metro states that “the lack of adequate funding has long been recognized”. Short term, net operating losses are expected to rise dramatically while revenues will not meet projections (budgeted ’07 $50.3, actual $46.7). NOL for ’07 was a negative $135 and expected to be a negative $170.5 in ’09.
    – –
    It’s unfortunate that Metro has been poorly managed for years and created this financial tsunami with the aid of rail advocates. The public voiced their preferences in the 90s but Metro dismissed them and CMT provided cover. Salci said in the summer of 2006 “I think people will see it was well worth the wait.” But the problems were obvious as unwise adjustments exacerbated design problems. The most efficient, convenient and healthy means of travel were left out of the equation. As stated before “poorly located stations, inefficient route design, lack of quality oversight, etc. guarantees a bad product. Spin does not erase facts.” As you wrote in WEW, “the Extension fails to impress”.
    – –
    CMT was a strong advocate for Salci and the Extension plans. Both failed. A community in a serious financial decline needs efficient, not expensive, solutions. Those pushing for the Extension have now succeeded in destroying the ability of mass transit to grow and flourish. At least one local institution got what it wanted while the rest of us will be forced to pay for this stinky result. Creating a transit district in communities divided by design will fail too.
    – –
    Sound angry? Who isn’t? The only way to provide hope with these negative scenarios is through dramatic changes but don’t expect much. CMT still claims “St. Louisans … have a public transit system competative with automobile travel.” Right. Join the locals, buy yourself a discounted SUV-more gas, pollute our air, add to the noise and increase the risks. The Loutanic has already left the harbor.

  11. JMedwick says:


    Take a look at the announcements this year from the Federal Highway Administration noting that the fuel tax cannot keep up with the costs of continuing the expansion of maintenance of the highway system. Look no further than MODOT’s Peter Rahn, who has pronounced that the current funding sources (i.e. the fuel tax) are not capable of funding the improvements or maintenance of the state’s road system. Look at the County level, where St. Louis County is diverting funds from Metrolink because of increasing roadway maintenance costs.
    Now Tim, if road were really “paying their way,” would government at all levels be bracing the public for the need to adopt new and different funding solutions?

  12. Phil says:

    ^ Gas tax “can’t keep up”? It is not even close. Only about 55% of the interstate highway system is funded by user fees including gas tax and tolls. The rest is from general revenue.


  13. GMichaud says:

    First of all automobiles do not even come close to paying their way. In addition to roads there is a whole structure of police, fire, ambulance, free parking etc. which become hidden costs above the cost of maintaining roads. These are services that are seldom needed with public transit.
    I think JZ is partially right in pointing out the need for density, but along with density is configuration of the urban environment. While it is possible to justify transit going to a densely populated point, such as a stadium, it is ultimately going to be more effective if density has continuity, as is the case in St. Louis, especially earlier times.
    I agree a Highway 170 zone may be better than a 270 zone, however the makeup of suburbs even that close in will make the success of streetcars and buses problematical, that is part of the reason that even now the county residents do not see value in transit. Unless the suburbs are reconfigured as suggested by Steve, adding mixed used projects and housing, it will be difficult to serve any population except those along major thoroughfares.
    Streetcars did actually make a profit in early years. A close examination how that was possible might lend some insight into how to remake a transit system. Clearly a densely populated city environment would have an upper hand in that situation.
    At this point the whole structure of this transit discussion in the public realm is a non starter. The two main players are MoDot and East West Gateway, both are prejudice for the auto. Neither organization understands how transit works (otherwise we would have a viable system now).
    Until another public entity is created to deal with the issues of transit and related issues nothing will get done.
    To me the best strategy, as Steve is alluding to, is develop the inner core of transit, whether to I-170 or other core, perhaps using the 1956 and earlier transit plans, which ran trains to Ferguson, Webster and Kirkwood also (why are these not integrated with the system now?)
    This in conjunction with urban planning efforts to correct the suburbanization of the city and create new walkable, dense environments in outer reaches of the core. And then serve the distant areas such as Chesterfield with buses going down major arteries. If they want transit at all.
    But the first step has to be to get rid of MoDot and East West Gateway as part of the process. They are a dead end.

  14. Brian says:

    If not for E-W Gateway, St. Louis wouldn’t have MetroLink. I think the real question is if not for aggressively expanding MetroLink (arguably led by Gateway, which should be, given its governance, synonymous with County Exec/Mayor), would Metro still be going broke today?

    It may seem strange for a Metropolitan Planning Organization like Gateway to lead transit system planning and corridor studies (though in Minneapolis, the MPO is the transit authority), but Metro’s past, combined with St. Louis fragmentation, created the void for another regional entity to fill. Bi-State (dba Metro) has always had the legal authority to do much more as an actual development agency (hence, the latter part of its legal name), but never the leadership or will of late to truly act like one.

    One should wonder whether Gateway and its leaders took too many risks with pushing MetroLink, especially Cross County. Granted, when Gateway handed off Cross County to Metro, they didn’t know it would be redesigned, arguably exposing the project to cost overruns. But they did know that Cross County would be a financial gamble, already at the maximum in capital costs of what Metro could afford (and that’s before the huge overrun) and already projecting future operational deficits minus any influx of new revenue outside dedicated sales tax streams.

    Put another way, regional planners, with the approval of top local leaders (for planners don’t plan without their board’s direction), gambled that MetroLink would win more supporters of transit. The response in terms of ridership has certainly been strong, but sadly, the political will needed to sustain its momentum and complete dire follow-up tasks never materialized. And that’s especially sad when the very leaders of Gateway are the region’s chief decision-makers.

    Being the chief and largest funding source of Metro, the County has had the greatest responsibility among any of the region’s goverments. I think this has most recently been lost in the current County Executive’s limited advocacy for transit. Given how Dooley pushed so quietly for Prop M, I think it’s time he thought seriously about what a reduced system will do to both his county and the greater region. Dooley does have a way to emerge as last-minute “hero” though, if he would actually decide to give Metro all of the half-cent raised in his jurisdiction intended for transit. Sure, that won’t buy more MetroLink, but the time for being bold has long passed. Now, the region’s leaders just have to be reasonable.

  15. Jim Zavist says:

    One challenge facing Metro is funding with strings attached. Even Prop M said half the additional revenue would need to be spent building more rail. Much like having local government trying to be developers, it seems like local governments want to direct transit spending as well. The folks at Metro could do a better job of maximizing their limited resources if they simply had more control. As I’ve said before, politicians would rather build things than maintain them. If it makes more sense to only spend 10% over the next decade on new rail instead of 50%, just to keep what we already have operating, then the management of Metro should have that option! They’re the professionals, they know how to create a balanced, integrated system, but they’re getting undercut by politicians pushing their own local agendas . . .
    To use Denver as an example again, their transit district is a quasi-governmental agency, with the ability to collect taxes, and has an elected board that determines how the funds are spent in the eight-county district. Their board is directly responsible to the voters who elected them (and only indirectly to the local cities and counties) and their one mission is to deliver public transit. Contrast that to the funding arrangement here, where Metro recieves no direct funding, it all gets filtered through other governmental bodies, and when a big entity like St. Louis County decides it’s not “able” or “worth it” to fund transit this year, then a huge whole gets put in the budget. The other real downside is a complete lack of ability to plan on long-term funding for large capital projects, especially rail projects. You can put off buying buses for 2 or 5 years if you really had to, you really can’t start and stop major construction projects depending on the whims of an annual budget allocation.
    Long term, the likely best answer will be a more robust and independent Bi-State Development Agency, one with a separate, dedicated funding stream (sales and/or gas taxes) approved by voters in both states and growing to encompass much more of the MSA. Short-term, we’re going to see significant transit cutbacks in the county, since, bottom line, you get the service you’re willing to pay for . . .

  16. Jerry says:

    I was looking at something on the web about electric buses. I believe it’s in Dayton Ohio that they still are in use. They would have the advatage of your fixed line concept (They must follow their over head wires). I would expect the construction and maintenance cost to be dramatically lower. And no pollution or CO2 emission (except at the source for the electricity).

    [slp — Seattle has these too. This is a good compromise. I think these still have the negative stigma of the bus. I’ve also seen rubber tired vehicles that use a single guiding track and overhead wires. The options are varied, all are worth considering.]

  17. Brian says:

    Charlotte is even playing with the idea of building wireless streetcars (hydrogen or diesel vehicles on embedded tracks), or what some might say is the complete opposite of trolley buses. For recent pictures of a place that went from not even competing with the likes of St. Louis in the “transit-space-race” to now competing with the likes of Denver and Seattle, check out this post at theoverheadwire.blogspot.com/2008/11/charlotte-photo-dump.html

  18. jredmond says:

    Minor nitpick: the term “wiki” describes a class of Web sites, not any specific one. Attributing your image to “wiki” is like attributing it to “book” or “newspaper”; you should name the specific one, and if possible provide a link to the exact page you’re citing.

    [slp — in academic circles at least, “wiki” refers to Wikipedia. Unfortunately, WordPress software doesn’t allow me to use links in image captions. The image itself is linked to the source.]

  19. john says:

    These challenges (characterized as “strings attached”) is how local leadership guarantees their desired result, image over substance. They can claim we have a “world class” light rail system without ever allocating appropriate and necessary resources (financial, management, public education, etc.) to make it successful. By building an expensive, inefficiently designed, poorly managed Extension creates the obvious end result: dysfunctional mass transit system for the majority of residents while simultaneously burdening the area with a financial black hole. The desired result, greater dependence on traditional means of travel and use of public space, is achieved and underwritten with the combination of TIFs-ED abuse.
    – –
    Of course there has been favored institutions in these designs which find this arrangement quite agreeable (it is how public funds and political powers are utilized in the Lou). Yes the Metro needs a dedicated long term funding stream in order to make comprehensive long term plans. But such details must be part of a larger plan that encompasses factors impacting transportation choices, governed by EWGC, MoDOT and state/county government.

  20. J says:

    @southsider, comment #1

    Here’s a link to a map showing the relative concentration of jobs in the region: http://www.ewgateway.org/pdffiles/maplibrary/EmpConcentration-1007.pdf

    I haven’t seen any maps showing detailed trip origin/destinations, but other useful maps can be found here: http://www.ewgateway.org/gis/regmapslist/regmapslist.htm


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