Archive for Brooklyn

A few updates on some stories I’ve been following:

MTA Reinvention Commission kicks off meetings

Last week, I shared my thoughts on the MTA Reinvention Commission and the august body’s need to focus on overhauling how the MTA works and how the agency does business. Today, the group kicked off their first set of meetings. (You can follow along via webcast.)

So far, the panel has spent a lot of time talking about affordable housing, and I’m growing worried that their focus is wrong. Reinventing the MTA requires asking hard questions and proposing top-to-bottom solutions for streamlining procurement, cutting extremely high capital costs and improving agency operations. It’s not about using the MTA to advance city policy goals. The MTA, I would argue, already does more than anything else for affordable housing than any one agency in the city, and the early framing on policy goals rather than MTA problems bodes ill for this Commission’s future, especially when a largely unfunded $30 billion capital plan looms. Affordable housing, for instance, is an outcome of sound transit policy, and without reinvention such that subways do not cost over $2 billion per mile, the policy goals will remain elusive.

On the bright side, Dana Rubinstein spoke with the Commission’s heads, and they expect results. “I don’t think any of these very busy people, any of these very important and smart people, would be involved in this if they didn’t think that these recommendations would be carried out,” Ray La Hood said to Rubinstein. Hopefully, the recommendations are expansive enough.

amNY: Where is New York’s better bus terminal?

The Port Authority Bus Terminal is low-hanging fruit, but it pays to remember just how sorry a spot it is. In an editorial today, amNew York urges the Port Authority to redevelop the bus terminal. “Midtown Manhattan urgently needs a brand-new, world-class bus station,” and with air rights value at an all-time high, the money to realize this dream — $500 million to $1 billion depending upon the scope of the project — could materialize.

G train shutdown looms as ferry questions remain

When Greenpoint’s India St. ferry stop collapsed earlier this year, everyone in the know knew that city had around four months to fix the dock before the summer shutdown of the G train for Sandy-related repairs. Now, with 11 days to go before the five-week outage, the ferry stop is not yet open, and no one knows when repairs will be complete. Brooklyn politicians are demanding answers, but concrete details are not forthcoming. This is one spot sorely in need of its ferry service and soon.

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For L and M train riders, this fall will bring some much needed capacity improvements during periods of high travel. For G train riders, this summer will bring a five-week service outage along the northern segment of the line as Sandy repair work wraps, but along with this service changes comes a free out-of-system transfer for which many have been clamoring for years. As subway experiments and service patterns go, these are worth some attention.

First, the good news. In addition to service increases this summer that will see more off-peak L train service and weekend M trains terminating at Essex St. instead of in Brooklyn, the MTA plans to add a significant number of trains along those L line and an extra ride along the M come the fall. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Saturday L service will be increased a total of thirty-three round trips between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m;
  • Sunday L service will be increased a total of twenty-three round trips between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m;
  • Weekday evening L service will be increased a total of three round trips;
  • Weekday M service will be increased a total of one round trip (one northbound trip in the morning and one southbound trip in the late afternoon);

These service additions, some of the more significant ones in recent years, come after Transit examined schedules and service demands. “Among the changes is a significant increase in L weekend service, which will decrease wait times for customers as well as increase capacity on a line that continues to see ridership growth, most notably during off peak hours,” NYC Transit President Carmen Bianco said in a statement. “Ridership is at an all-time high, including records for weekend ridership. These are customers who rely on us for all of their transportation needs, both work and play, and we are trying to meet that demand with our available resources.”

The MTA notes that these changes will cost around $1.7 million annually — a pittance for such a significant boost in service — and are in addition to the eight new weekend and weekday L train round trips that are on tap for the summer. The M train service increase will begin when the R train’s Montague St. tunnel is reactivated toward the end of October.

While this is welcome news for a lot of riders in Brooklyn and Queens, those who use the G train to bridge the Newtown Creek crossing will find themselves looking for other options this summer. As part of the Sandy work, the G will not run through the Greenpoint Tube beginning July 26. As an assist to riders looking for alternate routes, the MTA will create a free out-of-system transfer between the G at Broadway and the J/M/Z at Lorimer St. (I’m surprised it’s Lorimer and not Hewes, but that’s a minor point.)

It’s not entirely clear how the free transfer helps out those stranded by the Sandy shutdown as the J and M trains don’t go anywhere near Court Sq. (though the connection to the M will alleviate a lack of access to the E), but this transfer has always been one I believed the MTA should offer even if it meant changing their transfer policies. It allows for better connections into Lower Manhattan and the Sixth Avenue corridor as well as Brooklyn and Queens. “We realize this vital work is going to be an inconvenience for our customers and we’re happy to provide this service to make it easier for people in those affected neighborhoods,” MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said to the Daily News.

If this transfer proves popular, I have to believe the MTA would consider making it permanent. If anything, as I mentioned, it improves mobility between routes that have always crossed but never connected. That is never a bad development.

Categories : Brooklyn
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In my write-up of Michael Kimmelman’s Times column on the Brooklyn-Queens streetcar route, I posed a question that would be answered by any study examining this proposal: What problem does this light rail/streetcar line solve? Intuitively, it seemed as though the biggest problems were at either ends of the line — Red Hook and Astoria — and the idea of an interconnected waterfront was otherwise a developer’s dream masquerading as a solution to something that isn’t actually a problem.

One of the bigger issues with The Times’ proposal is how the routing doesn’t connect to subways. While Alex Garvin’s original plan brought the streetcar through Downtown Brooklyn, Kimmelman swung west, away from badly needed subway connections and instead tightly hugging the waterfront. The Times scribe claims this will help serve areas that are “inaccessible” or served “barely” by the G train, referred to in the article as “the city’s sorriest little railroad.” It’s not clear how a low-capacity streetcar running at slower speeds will be better than even the much-maligned G train, but that’s besides the point for these so-called “desire lines.”

One of the biggest issues though with Kimmelman’s argument is that most of the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront isn’t really that far away from the nearest subway (let alone feeder bus routes). I did some radius mapping tonight of the waterfront and various other areas in Brooklyn and Queens, and the resulting images are instructive. I cannot unfortunately embed the map so you’re stuck with some images. Take a look at what happens when you chart areas that are more than half a mile away from the nearest subway.

In Brooklyn, Red Hook and Navy Yards are far from the subway.

In Queens, parts of Astoria are a trek away from the nearest subway stop.

If we’re truly concerned about getting people from transit deserts to jobs, then there are three discrete problems: The Navy Yards, an actual job center, isn’t close to transit while Red Hook, where low income housing dominates, is physically and psychologically isolated. Finally, in Astoria, parts of the waterfront are far from the N and Q trains, but there is an area where a ferry would make more sense as a lesser cost option.

The truth is the waterfront is not, by and large, without access to transit, and the G train, as scorned as it is, provides an adequate crosstown connection. A shorter streetcar route could help solve Red Hook’s problems and make the Navy Yards more attractive; a long streetcar that snakes past luxury developments that are a 10-minute walk from the nearest subway seems like more of a bonus for developers than a solution to a problem. But it’s still worth studying, objectively and thoroughly, and then when we have cost estimates and ridership projections, we can talk. As an object of desire though, it leaves much to be desired.

* * *

For fun (?), I have two more screenshots of the radius maps. Take a look at South Brooklyn and Eastern Queens. Forget desire lines and the developing waterfront; these are massive areas of the two most populous boroughs where the nearest subway connections are miles away. No one seems interested in solving that problem though.

Lots of highways but no subways for eastern Queens.

Forget about catching the train in South Brooklyn (or East New York for that matter).

Categories : Brooklyn, Queens
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The waterfront streetcar would make for a torturously long ride from Astoria to Red Hook, especially in mixed traffic. (Via Next New York)

As 2013 unfolded and the promise of a new mayor came into view, the Forum for Urban Design hosted a series of meetings on urban development. As part of the forum, a variety of planners and designers submitted ideas for the Next New York. I highlighted one of those ideas — Alex Garvin’s waterfront light rail — in a September post on light rail for Red Hook. It is, of course, an old idea that won’t fade away and could make sense as a speedier connection to the jobs, shops, restaurants and subways in Downtown Brooklyn if the costs are right.

Today, that idea — and the rest of Garvin’s impractical line all the way to Astoria — is back in the news as The New York Times has discovered it. It’s always dangerous when The Times latches onto an element of urban planning as they tend to push real estate interests over transit needs, and their coverage of this idea as a mixed-traffic streetcar connecting waterfront areas that don’t need to be connected to each other follows a similar pattern. This is a Big Idea for the sake of Big Ideas and not to solve a discrete problem.

The presentation comes to us in a Michael Kimmelman column. I’ll excerpt:

There’s a wonderful term for the dirt trails that people leave behind in parks: desire lines. Cities also have desire lines, marked by economic development and evolving patterns of travel. In New York, Manhattan was once the destination for nearly all such paths, expressed by subway tracks that linked Midtown with what Manhattanites liked to call the outer boroughs.

But there is a new desire line, which avoids Manhattan altogether. It hugs the waterfronts of Brooklyn and Queens, stretching from Sunset Park past the piers of Red Hook, to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, through Greenpoint and across Newtown Creek, which separates the two boroughs, running all the way up to the Triborough Bridge in Astoria. The desire line is now poorly served by public transit, even as millennials are colonizing Astoria, working in Red Hook, then going out in Williamsburg and Bushwick — or working at the Navy Yard, visiting friends in Long Island City and sleeping in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

They have helped drive housing developments approved or built along the Brooklyn waterfront, like the one by Two Trees at the former Domino Sugar Refinery. But this corridor isn’t only for millennials. It’s also home to thousands of less affluent New Yorkers struggling to get to jobs and join the work force. So here’s an idea: bring back the streetcar.

The idea of a “desire line” is a literary device; it doesn’t mirror reality. Furthermore, the rest of Kimmelman’s column is replete with contradictions about this streetcar’s plan. Kimmelman opts for streetcars over buses because of “romance,” but and while there’s something to be said about the psychological impact of a streetcar, we’re talking about a half a billion dollars and massive upfront infrastructure needs for a mixed-traffic line that won’t do what Kimmelman wants it to do.

Here’s the question that needs to be asked first: Will the “thousands of less affluent New Yorkers struggling to get to jobs and join the work force” benefit from this streetcar route? What problem is a line near the waterfront from Red Hook to Astoria trying to solve? One Twitter follower put together a Google Map of the proposed routing, and you’ll see that the best it does is provide direct access to the Navy Yard, a decent sized job center in Brooklyn. As passé as it may be, jobs are in Manhattan or generally along subway lines, and this route doesn’t help improve access to subway lines. (It’s also a mess operationally with tight turns along narrow streets that would limit rolling stock length. It also parallels some bus routes, raising even more questions of need and cost.)

While Cap’n Transit believes that any area that could support light rail would be prime for a subway, if costs are lower and ridership falls in between buses and a subway, light could work. As I mentioned, we can’t dismiss the psychological edge they hold over buses, and with the right routing — dedicated lanes that run, say, from Red Hook to the Navy Yards via subway stations in Downtown Brooklyn rather than via the waterfront — they could solve the gaps in transit deserts. But we shouldn’t, as Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen does, love this idea simply because it’s new, romantic or big. Will the ridership justify the costs? Will the service connect to job centers and destinations or provide a faster way to get to New York’s developed subway network? Can we identify a need and support that need based on a thorough study? “Desire” isn’t enough considering how much this will cost.

Categories : Brooklyn, Queens
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A Brooklyn driver, perhaps taking inspiration from this Nissan Rogue comemrcial, somehow managed to drive over a concrete wall, through a fence and on top of a Q train at Albermarle Road this morning shortly before 5 a.m. The suspected driver fled the scene, and no subway passengers were hurt. The Q train sustained minimal damage, though when I arrived at 7th Ave. a few hours later, Coney Island-bound trains were still running express through the area. The images are dramatic, but the idea that this how we’ve come to expect people to drive in New York City is decidedly not.

Categories : Brooklyn
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The Riders Alliance wants more bus countdown clocks installed throughout the city, but they carry a hefty price tag.

For bus riders in Brooklyn and Queens, “soon” now has a set date. BusTime — the MTA’s real-time bus tracking service — will go live for the city’s most populous boroughs on Sunday, March 9. Bus riders in those two boroughs will now know, via text message, smart phone apps or the the web where their buses are and how far away that next bus is. It will be a huge boost for riders long accustomed to spotty service and maddeningly inconsistent waits.

“MTA Bus Time is yet another way we are trying to improve service for our customers,” Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit, said in a press release. “As we have seen with train arrival information in the subway, customers appreciate when they know when that train or bus will show up at the station or stop.”

With the addition of Brooklyn and Queens bus routes, including express bus service, the entire city will have access to bus tracking information, and the MTA has met its self-imposed deadline for bringing the service online. This last installation adds 9000 bus stops to the system as well. What it doesn’t include yet are countdown clocks — or, more accurately, station countdowns — at each station, and transit advocates hope to change that.

At a rally hosted by the Riders Alliance (of which I am a board member), bus riders and other transit advocates called upon politicians to help fund a NYCDOT initiative that would see digital countdown timers installed at key bus stations throughout the city. The timers — similar to the one atop this post — would be a big help to those who aren’t aware of BusTime or are not otherwise comfortable with the technology that makes the bus location information readily available.

“Countdown clocks have been a huge hit on subway platforms,” John Raskin, Executive Director of the Riders Alliance, said. “Now it’s time to bring them to bus stops. We have the technology and we have the interest from riders.”

What is missing from Raskin’s equation is, of course, money. A 2012 study by Brad Lander noted that countdown clocks at bus stops would cost around $4000-$6000 to install, but the solar-powered free-standing signs in place as part of the Staten Island pilot would cost up to $20,000 each. That’s a prohibitive cost and an insane one. Ridership doesn’t warrant installing one at every bus stop, but for key bus stations, these simple timers that countdown stops shouldn’t cost that much.

“The best way to get where I’m going is the bus. I try to time it using printed schedules but most of the time the bus doesn’t follow the schedule,” Thomasin Bentley, a Riders Alliance member, said. “I want to use the bus. It’s clean and affordable. Bus countdown clocks would allow me to make the most of an otherwise great system. The text messaging service is a good start but I find it difficult to understand, and I’m a real tech person. I can imagine that it’s hard for other people to figure out as well.”

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Earlier this week, State Assemblyman Paul Goldfeder’s office sent out what I thought was an oddly-phrased press release along with a letter the Queens representative sent to MTA head Tom Prendergast. In the letter, Goldfeder called upon the MTA to include Queens in its plans for BusTime.

“Waiting for a bus in Queens should not be a guessing game,” he said. “I applaud the MTA for using technology to better their services for customers and I strongly urge them to include all New Yorkers in their latest advances and implement the real-time bus locator app for Queens residents as soon as possible.”

What struck me as odd was the fact that the MTA had always said BusTime would be a city-wide effort and that the rest of the city would receive real-time bus tracking info by the middle of this year. Everything I had heard from MTA sources indicated that the rollout was on time, and I asked Goldfeder’s office if they had heard otherwise. His press rep clarified that Goldfeder “sent a letter to the Chairman to make sure the app does come to Queens and there’s no second thoughts.” An app without one borough would be no app indeed.

In response to Goldfeder’s inquiry, the MTA has stressed its commitment to Brooklyn and Queens. If you look closely enough at the MTA’s bus fleet — and know what to look for — you’ll see that the equipment for BusTime is already in place, and the MTA has said that it should be live soon. “We have completed boroughwide installations in Queens and Brooklyn and are currently fine-tuning software,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said in response to various inquiries. “We are on schedule to go online in the next several weeks.”

So there you have it: Ask for an update, and ye shall receive. A citywide implementation of BusTime should do wonders for bus ridership and the overall convenience of New York’s otherwise unreliable local buses. If only now we could do something about the clunky fare payment system.

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FastrackBrooklyn24

Here’s a FASTRACK that’s, uh, near and dear to my heart. My own station will be closed each night this week as FASTRACK knocks out all local service between Atlantic Ave. and Franklin Ave. along the IRT in Brooklyn. From 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. for the next four nights, 2 and 4 trains will run express, skipping Bergen St., Grand Army Plaza and Eastern Parkway. The 3 train service into Brooklyn will end early each night while 4 trains will head to New Lots a little earlier than usual.

As FASTRACKs go, this one is a pretty easy one. The Q makes a stop at 7th Ave. that can serve much of the area, and the stops aren’t that far apart to make walking out of the question. Still, the MTA will run shuttle buses up and down Flatbush Ave. and Eastern Parkway to provide access to the shuttered local stops. Free shuttle buses operate between Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr and Franklin Av making station stops at Bergen St, Grand Army Plaza, and Eastern Pkwy.

Meanwhile, Monday was a pretty busy day at MTA HQ as Metro-North and the LIRR reporting very high ridership figures for 2013, Transit announced an extension of the trash can-free station program, and Capital Construction ate humble pie over the East Side Access project. I’ll have more on each of those stories over the next few days.

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The B44 SBS makes one of its early runs along Nostrand Ave. (Photo: MTA / Patrick Cashin)

Monday was a momentous day for one corridor in Brooklyn. After years and years of planning, the B44 finally has some upgrades to make a Select Bus Service. This isn’t bus rapid transit for a variety of reasons, but it’s faster service than a local bus. For that, the politicians were out en masse for some back-slapping and ribbon-cutting.

It makes sense, of course, for Mayor Bloomberg to show up for another streetscape initiative. He only has a few more weeks of ceremonies to attend, and the 7 line, his signature transit initiative, won’t be in revenue service before he departs for Bermuda from City Hall. The city says travel will improve by 20 percent along the 9.3-mile route, and everyone else is thrilled.

Thomas Prendergast, MTA head, called it “a game-changer” for riders of one of Brooklyn’s more popular bus lines, and the Mayor spoke effusively as well. “Improved bus service in all five boroughs has been one of our principal goals under PlaNYC and thanks to our partnership with the MTA, we have increased ridership and improved travel times along our Select Bus Service routes,” Bloomberg said said. “We’ve had great success with Select Bus Service in other boroughs and Brooklyn’s first route will bring a new and necessary mass transit option to more New Yorkers.”

Janette Sadik-Khan had an even more myopic take. “With six routes launched in just six years, SBS has delivered low-cost transit options to underserved parts of the city faster than any transit project in generations,” the DOT Commissioner said. The emphasis was mine. Imagine that! Six whole bus routes in six years.

I’m not going to pass judgment on the B44 SBS route yet. I’m a supporter of better bus service, and I believe that bus service in New York is criminally overlooked. Buses stop every two blocks and inch through traffic at the speed of a snail. They don’t run frequently or on schedule, and they carry with them the burden of low expectations that they cannot even fulfill. I’ve heard some very early criticisms of the B44 route focusing around station spacing and subpar local service, but it’s been a day or two. We’ll revisit that when the time comes.

Instead, I’d like to look at what it is our politicians are so proud of. Why is there a ribbon-cutting for a nine-mile strip of colored pavement? The mayor’s own press release couldn’t name much more beyond bus bulbs, pre-board fare payment and improved customer information boards along the route. The MTA’s release mentioned signal prioritization, a long-planned benefit, but the lanes are physically separated. We’re patting ourselves on the back for just the sixth iteration of a glorified express bus service since 2007, and that’s what counts for transit innovation these days.

Nearly all of these improvements should, for the most part, be implemented in the course of normal MTA operation procedures throughout the city on any major bus route. Pre-board fare payment is the number one driver behind speeding up the buses. Just imagine how much faster the M86 would be if the Lexington Ave. crowds had to pay before boarding the bus. But here we are at the end of the Bloomberg administration, and a bunch of on-street MetroCards are the most exciting initiative DOT could find. Never mind the fact that it takes four years and countless consultations with community members who want nothing to do with street redesigns to get just one route off the ground.

I understand why the ribbon-cutting may be symbolically necessary in that it shows the community these changes are worthy and worth celebrating. It also allows politicians to get out there to discuss changes. But our sights are aimed too low. The city gave up on 34th St.; they gave up, temporarily, on 125th St. Now, leaders want kudos from incremental improvements. Pardon me for not being too impressed.

Categories : Brooklyn, Buses
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All of this took only five years of planning.

The MTA and New York City Department of Transportation are just thrilled with their latest initiative. For the first time, Brooklyn is getting a Select Bus Service route. The dedicated lane will provide faster service along the B44 corridor, and it will debut on November 17 after five years of planning. That’s right; it’s taken five years to paint some lanes, add some bus bulbs and eliminate some parking spaces. At this rate, city residents can expect to enjoy ones of new Select Bus Service routes before the decade is out.

In a release today, the MTA announced the start of this service along with the details. It was billed as a passing of the torch as agency contractors had to remove trolley tracks that had been buried for decades to pave them over with special SBS bus lanes. Before that, though, as the release proudly (?) proclaims, “New York City Transit and the New York City Department of Transportation have been working with bus customers, neighborhood residents, local merchants and elected officials for five years to bring SBS service to Brooklyn.”

We’ll come back to that five-year time frame in a few paragraphs. First, the operational details:

The B44 SBS will operate southbound from the Williamsburg Bridge on Lee Avenue and Nostrand Avenue all the way to Sheepshead Bay. Northbound SBS will operate on Nostrand Avenue and then via Flatbush, Rogers and Bedford Avenues to Williamsburg. The B44 local bus will continue to operate northbound on New York Avenue between Farragut Road and Fulton Street.

The B44 SBS will connect to nine different subway lines along its route: the J, M and Z at Marcy Avenue; the G at Bedford-Nostrand; the 3 at Nostrand Avenue; the A and C at Nostrand Avenue; and the 2 and 5 at Brooklyn College. The B44 SBS will introduce new three-door, articulated buses to Brooklyn. These high-capacity buses are all-low floor for easier and faster boarding. For customers who are mobility impaired, the buses feature quick-deploying ramps, rather than lifts.

The B44 SBS will feature bus lanes—in both directions—between Flushing Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, a total of nine miles. Generally, the bus lanes are one lane away from the curb, which allow deliveries and neighborhood parking to be retained at the curb. In this segment, every bus station will feature a bus bulb, which extends the sidewalk creating more space for pedestrians and bus customers…While bus bulbs are in use along SBS routes in Manhattan and the Bronx, this will be their first deployment in Brooklyn. As is the case with other SBS routes in the Bronx and Manhattan, B44 SBS will also feature off-board fare collection, which means that customers will pay at the bus station prior to boarding the bus. Every station will include machines to accept MetroCards and a machine to accept coin payment.

People who pay closer attention to the ins and outs of bus planning aren’t too excited by this route. The complaints range from the NIMBY (lost parking spaces) to the operational as there may be less frequent local service along a busy bus corridor. You can read Allan Rosen’s three-part series on the B44 SBS (1, 2, 3) and assess the technical details for yourself. I’m more concerned with this five-year timeframe.

It’s mind-boggling that it took five years for a low-rent version of bus rapid transit to move from concept to reality, and it’s crazy that the MTA is highlighting this timeframe in their press materials. Five years is longer than a presidential term; the amount of time that’s passed since the start of the Great Recession; half a decade. The results are a dedicated bus lane with pre-board fare payment options and some multi-hued pavement. Imagine if the end result were actually transformative.

This process has taken so long because DOT and the MTA have been forced to hold meetings with virtually every single person who lives along the B44. Time and time again, business owners, residents and Community Boards have to offer input every time the plans change. This is no way to build a transit network, and it’s something that needs to be addressed. The mayoral candidates all believe buses are our future, but buses aren’t anyone’s future if it takes five years to get one line’s worth of improvements rolled out.

Categories : Brooklyn, Buses
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