Archive for Service Cuts

What a difference four years make. At around this time back in 2010, New York City and its transit system was gearing up for a day of reckoning. Bus lines throughout the city were to be axed with more bus stops eliminated, and subway service was set to be pared down. Despite record ridership, the MTA’s finances were in disarray, and Albany wasn’t willing to take unpopular steps to shore up the balance sheet.

These days, the MTA’s finances aren’t any more secure than they were four years ago, but the economy on the whole — and key tax revenues — are on the up and up. Thus, the agency is on a better footing and can bring service increases online to meet demand. We heard last week about some major increases in off-peak L train frequency, and that won’t be, according to a report in the Daily News, the only transit bumps New Yorkers will witness this year. We’ll know more once the MTA’s budget is released in July, but as Pete Donohue reported, the MTA is gearing up to add $20 million worth of service.

“The customers want more service and the board members want to give them more service,” an unnamed MTA official said to the News. “We’re looking at the most cost-effective ways to do that.”

And just what are those cost-effective ways? Here’s Donohue’s take:

The presidents of the MTA’s bus, subway and commuter train operations have submitted to headquarters possible targets for funding. Some board members and advocacy groups, like the Straphangers Campaign and the Riders Alliance, also have pitched suggestions. They include extending the J train on weekends to Broad St., extending the B37 bus route to downtown Brooklyn, returning the M104 to 42nd St., restoring weekend service on the Long Island Rail Road’s West Hampton branch and extending Metro-North Railroad trains with additional cars to reduce crowding.

The service upgrades, if ultimately adopted, would mark the third year in a row the MTA put forth major spending programs that boosted bus, subway and commuter train service after enacting deep cuts in 2010…

The MTA executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the authority will not restore all of the 2010 cuts, adding that they included bus routes that proved too expensive because of extremely low ridership. This new round also will likely include more nonservice initiatives, such as working to improve cleanliness and customer communications, the executive said.

Based on this list, I’m more intrigued by the cleanliness and customer communications initiatives than I am of the actual service increases. Longer Metro-North train sets at certain hours of the day would be a boon for riders who feel the space limitations, but extending the J train to Broad St. on weekends isn’t anything that impacts that many subway riders. I’m hoping for more once we see the final plans. I am also tempted to say that it doesn’t make sense to bring back many of the axed bus routes, but this position raises the question of induced demand. Can bus service — even those expensive to run — lead to a greater desire for transit service?

Still, investment in more transit service is a positive from the MTA. We saw them pare down service by nearly $100 million a few years ago, and they’ve slowly added it back where demand warrants it. These are moves that warrant support; it’s only too bad the investments come in such small increments. Imagine where we would be and how the transit network could serve the city and the region if money were less of an obstacle.

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While the right way to spend $40 million may be in doubt, the MTA is forging ahead with a plan to use of this unexpected windfall to restore services. According to a report in the Daily News and documents that will soon be made public, the agency will devote at least $14 million to bringing back some bus and subway service lost to 2010 rollbacks.

Pete Donohue had just a bit more: “A transit official cautioned the final list of “service investments” has not been finalized. But sources say it now includes restoring or increasing service on the M8 and M100 in Manhattan, the B37 and B70 in Brooklyn, the Bx24 in the Bronx, and the Q58 and Q37 in Queens. Many of the restorations involve bringing back weekend service, one source said.”

It’s unclear right now what the so-called “subway improvements” will be, but Donohue notes that at least $700,000 in G train upgrades, spurred on by the results of the full line review, will likely be a part of the budget as well. We’ll know more next week, and as it’s late and I just made it home from the All Star Game, I’ll have more to say later on Wednesday.

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A few weeks ago, during the June MTA Board Meeting, authority officials let slip the word that they were considering some service restorations. With a rosier financial outlook, the MTA estimated that it could bring back around $20 million of cut subway and bus services, good news indeed for New Yorkers used to cuts. Now, with the July meeting on tap, a new report says that the MTA will unveil those service restorations next week, and, as an added bonus, Transit will commit to making the G train extension through Brooklyn permanent.

Pete Donohue has the story:

Transit officials are poised to allocate tens of millions of dollars for additional bus, subway and commuter train service — and plan to make permanent a popular expansion of the G train in Brooklyn, sources said.Metropolitan Transportation Authority executives have been drafting and revising lists of rider-friendly initiatives that include restoring some — but certainly not all — of the service that was whacked in 2010 to close a canyon-like budget deficit, the sources said.

Now, the authority’s finances have improved to the point that transit executives are confident they can ramp up service in parts of the system where planners and managers believe it is most needed and practical. A majority of the restorations will be in Brooklyn and the Bronx, which makes sense because those boroughs were hit the hardest by the bus-heavy budget cuts two years ago, the sources said.

MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota and top transit executives will unveil the service upgrades as they present revised financial plans to the MTA board next week. Some of the dropped routes will be brought back to life — though one source said those will be few in number. In most cases, the MTA will run buses more frequently on certain routes to better meet increased demand, or extend an existing route into a neighborhood where buses don’t currently stop, that source said.

Donohue also reports that the G train extension to Church Ave. will be made permanent, good news indeed for residents and businesses in Park Slope, Windsor Terrace and Kensington who have long been arguing for such announcement. (Considering the ridership numbers, I never thought the extension was in doubt, but political support for transit improvements should be applauded.)

It’s unclear right now how much money will be allocated toward the service restorations. Donohue says the MTA could have as much as $90 million on tap come the end of the year. It’s also unclear which services will be restored and when. Still, this is a welcome development indeed.

Yet, there’s something missing. The MTA can restore services because the economy has improved, but that’s a variable funding source. The authority still needs a reliable stream of money to avoid future service cuts. As Transportation Alternatives noted, this move should be a wake-up call. “These service restorations are good news, but a public utility as vital as transit shouldn’t be subject to the boom and bust of the economy” Paul Steely White, TA’s Executive Director, said. “Today’s news highlights the need for dedicated, sustainable investment in public transit from the state government. Leaving transit funding to the whims of the economy is shortsighted and misguided. When the economy is struggling, reliable and affordable buses and subways are even more important to all New Yorkers.”

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What once was no longer a bus stop may become one again in the future. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Two years ago — to the day, if you’re reading this on Thursday — the MTA, in the face of a massive budget deficit, enacted sweeping service reductions that cut a deep gash through the city’s transit network. Although many believed the authority was playing chicken with Albany, the MTA called the state’s bluff in 2010 when, on June 28, it cut two subway lines, 36 bus routes and around 570 bus stops. Now, the agency may be reassessing these cuts as it prepares its 2013 budget, but the extent of any service restorations will remain contingent upon money and the reality on the ground.

At the time of the cuts, Albany could do nothing. New York State had been struggling financially, and legislatures couldn’t or wouldn’t find new revenue to keep services up and running. In an effort to spread the pain, the MTA included service cuts in its sweeping economic reforms, and since that day two years ago, neighborhoods have been up in arms. The same state representatives who refused to confront the MTA and its problems head on have spent years arguing for the restoration of services. Cries have gone up from every corner of the city, from the M8 to the B77, from Sheepshead Bay to the Bronx.

For years, MTA representatives have said services could be restored if the money materializes, and yesterday, the MTA Board made a similar pledge. According to Board members, up to $20 million in next year’s budget could go toward restoring lost services. I have to believe most of that will go toward brining back the buses, but I’m hopeful some could lead to increased subway service as well.

Matt Flegenheimer of The Times had more from Wednesday’s board meeting:

There is no date. There is no proposal. And there is certainly no guarantee. But for the first time since 2010, when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority approved deep cuts amid a budget shortfall, there appears to be optimism that some of the services that were eliminated may be restored — provided that the agency’s recent, if tenuous, financial trends and ridership increases hold.

“Not a day goes by when I don’t think about restoration of services and further investments in the system,” Joseph J. Lhota, chairman of the transportation authority, said Wednesday during a monthly board meeting at the agency’s headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. Mr. Lhota added that the authority remained in the “early stages of evaluation” for possible restorations.

Andrew Albert, a board member and the chairman of the New York City Transit Riders Council, said that some board members had discussed a $20 million restoration fund — enough to bring back some bus, subway or commuter rail services, but probably far too little to return to former levels. “It looks like some figures are trending in the good direction, versus what we’ve seen last year,” Mr. Albert said. “The fact that the chairman is talking about it, and several board members are talking about it, I think bodes well.”

According to Flegenheimer’s report, many MTA Board members are also concerned that the looming fare hikes, guaranteed a few years back, will leave a very bad taste in people’s mouths without a corresponding bump in service. “It’s awfully hard to ask people to pay more when they’re getting a lot less,” Albert said.

Of course, a pair of issues remain, and first between those is money. When asked about the dollars, former Gov. David Paterson, the newest addition to the MTA Board, hedged. “This is the problem,” he said. “Everybody could tell me what they didn’t want cut, but no one could tell me how we balance the budget.” It’s still the problem as New York politicians want service restored but have no plans to pay for it. The MTA will likely have to move some money around and hope for a recovering economy.

The second problem though is a tougher one to overcome. In the aftermath of the service cuts, NYC DOT, the party that controls the city’s bus stops, uprooted many of the then-defunct stops, including all of the shelters and poles along B71 just around the corner from my apartment. The CEMUSA shelters are gone; the bus stations are now parking spots. The MTA isn’t going to restore those services; we’ll never get many similar routes back.

Still, it’s hard not to be optimistic here. Politicians have responded to their constituent demands, and the MTA is listening to those in positions of power who can exert some influence over the authority. By the time 2013 rolls around, we’ll likely have more service then than we do today, and that’s a net positive for the millions who need public transit in New York City.

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A few months ago, in early October as Columbus Day dawned, the MTA announced a plan to reduce service on so-called minor holidays. For some days — the weekdays after Thanksgiving and the week in between Christmas and New Years — the MTA finds that ridership doesn’t hit peak loads, and running reduce service on the IRT lines will save the authority a few hundred grand a year. For $200,000 in savings, I thought the plan was worth a shot, and then, I had to take the subway last week.

Like many New Yorkers, I didn’t have off the days in between Christmas and New Years. I took a pair of vacation days last week but still went to work on Tuesday and Wednesday. I noticed longer waits for a downtown express train at Grand Central during the evening rush hour and longer waits for a Manhattan-bound local from Grand Army Plaza in the morning. Trains, because of the long waits, weren’t noticeably emptier, but it took me longer to get to work.

Yesterday was something of a minor holiday as well. The vast majority of office workers had off, and the MTA was running trains on a reduced Saturday schedule. During a midday ride to and from Manhattan, I had to wait nine minutes for an uptown local at Chambers St. and eight minutes for a downtown express at the same stop two hours later. Even for weekend service, the trains seemed slow.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers are always on the go. While the trains may be less crowded, that doesn’t mean we still don’t need them just as much. So how’s the MTA faring with this new “minor” holiday project? Michael Grynbaum of The Times checked in with an answer. The MTA claims the trial is designed to address times when the authority is running “more service than is required,” but that’s a nebulous idea. We require a vibrant and efficient subway system, and sometimes, that means trains won’t be full. If the MTA offered only what was required, subway service would be even slower than it is today.

As Grynbaum reports, straphangers and rider advocates are skeptical of the new service levels. He writes:

“I got on the 6 train from 110th Street at just about 8:30, and it was a solid 10-minute wait for a train,” said Chris Daly, as he waited for the Lexington Avenue local to ferry him home from a crowded platform at Grand Central Terminal on Thursday evening. “It’s usually six minutes, tops, in the morning,” Mr. Daly, 37, said, craning his neck to peek down the tunnel. “It was certainly unusual.”

As Mr. Daly waited, the platform was becoming increasingly claustrophobic. Hordes of puzzled tourists, many with rolling suitcases attached, poured down the staircases. Above Mr. Daly’s head, the L.E.D. countdown clock flashed an update: the next northbound No. 5 train was still 13 minutes away…

Reached this week, Mr. Albert, the chairman of the New York City Transit Riders Council, said his feelings on the program had not much improved. “I don’t know where they get this information from, that people aren’t working, but that’s pretty presumptuous, isn’t it?” Mr. Albert asked. “I see tons of tourists. Are the subways less crowded for anyone riding them?”

“I don’t see Transit offering to add service at those times when it is really busy and you might need extra trains,” he added. “I just notice a penchant for taking it away.”

That last bit has, of course, been an MTA theme for a while. The authority has taken service away on buses and in the subways, but it has been years since an expansion of service. Money may be tight, but so too are your typical subway cars. At some point, the authority will have to find the right balance between service levels, wait times and crowding.

It might make sense to reduce service during minor holidays and lesser trafficked days, but it will also create a loop. Fewer people will take the subway if there’s less frequent (and convenient) service, and thus, the MTA will be able to cut service even further as that bare minimum level of train frequency nears. Personally, I noticed less convenient service last week, but I’ll keep taking the trains. No matter the wait, it’s the best way for me — and millions of other New Yorkers — to get to work.

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When I rode to work this morning, I found a seat waiting for me on my 3 train out of Grand Army Plaza and another on the 5 that greeted me at Nevins St. On a typical Monday morning, finding seats on both of those trains is a rarity, but today is not a typical Monday. Rather, it is Columbus Day, a loosely celebrated federal holiday during which some, but not all, New Yorkers have off. I noticed the subways were noticeably emptier this morning and so too did the MTA.

Starting today, the authority has launched a pilot program that will see service reduced on the numbered IRT lines during minor holidays. Instead of operating trains on a weekend schedule as the TA does for Independence Day, Memorial Day and the like, Transit will instead run trains at around 75 percent of normal on Martin Luther King Day, Good Friday, Columbus Day, the Friday after Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, the three weekdays following Christmas and New Year’s Eve if it falls on a weekday. Demand, says the authority, is usually 60 percent of normal during those so-called minor holidays.

As far as the nitty gritty goes, peak hour wait times will increase by at most 1-2 minutes while off-peak wait times might be a bit longer, and the initial A Division-only pilot will save the authority $200,000. Transit anticipates “significant additional savings on an annual basis” when and if the program expands to include B Division lettered trains as well.

Reaction to the new plan has been decidedly mixed, as The Post reported today. “If it ends up reducing service and causing problems for people, you really have to question whether it’s worth it. For some of these minor holidays, I’m not sure how much of a decrease there really is,” William Henderson of the MTA’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee said, citing the day after Thanksgiving as a popular day for the subways.”

On the other hand, though, the MTA says that “reduction in service is smaller than the reduction in ridership” on this minor weekday holidays, and anecdotally, the subways are often emptier during these holidays than they are on a typical weekday. So I pose this to you: Death by 1000 cuts or a service adjustment that makes sense considering the circumstances?

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When the MTA announced its sweeping subway service changes last year, the news was, by and large, bad for straphangers. With the V and W chopped, the G train scaled back and load guidelines adjusted to allow for less frequent service, I assumed that most subway riders would feel the pain of the service cuts. The only winners would be those folks from the Middle Village area who could enjoy a one-seat ride into Midtown on the rerouted M train.

Over a year later, the MTA has unveiled its findings on the impact of the service cuts, and the claims are fairly sweeping. First, as I’ve noted in the past, bus ridership has suffered the most. In the wake of the cuts, it’s down across every borough. In fact, subway ridership increased in the year following the cuts by approximately 0.3 percent, but bus ridership declined significantly. The MTA says the economy, demographics changes and fare hikes may be to blame, but as bus routes have become longer and more circuitous and frequency diminished, ridership will flee for more reliable and speedier routes.

On the subway front, the MTA says that 95 percent of all riders were “unaffected or minimally affected.” That’s a fairly bold claim all things considered, and anecdotally at least, it seems to be one that may be tough to sustain. Particularly during off-peak hours, train waits have been longer and trains more crowded. That combination might not make people head aboveground for expensive cab rides or longer walks, but it certainly makes a commute less pleasant. Subway ridership might increase but begrudgingly so.

The part of Transit’s report concerning the cuts though focused on the M/V switch and the reactivation of the Chrystie Street Cut. I thought the M switch would prove to be quite popular, and the numbers seemed to bear out that intuition. Overall M ridership was up by about five percent from September – November 2010 as compared with the same period the year before, and total ridership along the J/M/Z Middle Village-to-Williamsburg segment was up by over six percent. M trains are now at 86 percent of their load guidelines as compared with 66 percent the year before. Transit believes the increase is due in part to former L train riders opting for a one-seat ride on the M instead. I’d like to know if the M rerouting has increased property value along the one-seat ride.

Meanwhile, the one big sore spot among F train riders hasn’t seen much of a decline. A few vocal East Village and Alphabet City residents bemoaned the lack of a second train at Second Ave., and the station saw a slight dip in passengers. However, at Essex/Delancey, average weekday entries increased by over 4500, more than making up for the 363-person decline at Second Ave. Those closer to Essex/Delancey simply shifted their commute patterns.

With any winner comes a loser, and the Southern Brooklyn lines that no longer enjoyed both the M and R service suffered though. Ridership numbers along 4th Ave. did not decline, but R train loads are now at 69 percent of the guidelines as compared with 48 percent beforehand. Queens Boulevard riders who have to take the 480-foot-long M trains as opposed to the 600-foot-long V trains have noticed some additional crowding as well.

Ultimately, this slate of numbers offers us a peak into the impact of the service changes. The MTA, of course, wants to spin this as positively as possible, but the truth is that we have fewer trains and less frequent service today than we did 16 months ago. These trains aren’t coming back anytime soon, and no matter what the numbers say, New Yorkers as a whole all lose out because of that.

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To better align service along the 1 and 6 with load guidelines during the summer, the MTA has reduced service along those two lines, and boy, oh boy, is The Daily News unhappy about it. In a rather lengthy article, Pete Donohue reports that the authority has reduced peak service on the 6 from 23 trains per hour to 21 and off peak service from 15 to 13. Along the 1, Transit running 16 peak-hour trains, down from 18, and between nine and 11 off-peak hours down from 10-12. In other words, expect to wait 30 seconds more for the train.

The MTA says that these adjustments are merely season as ridership slumps in the summer with school out and families head on vacation. “These are seasonal adjustments we’ve made based on declining ridership resulting from summer vacations and are similar to the seasonal adjustments we have been making along certain bus routes,” Transit said. “In most cases, customers would have to wait an extra 30 seconds for a train.” Still, that didn’t stop the News from finding irate customers along the IRT. “Whoever created the schedule should be forced to ride the 6 train all day,” rider Mary Dohnalek said in a letter, seemingly penned before service was scaled back, to Transit.

I always find it tough to stomach any service scalebacks because it always seems to take longer to restore service, but a Transit spokesman assured me that full service would be restored when school starts again. “Both of these routes have very frequent service, so the customer impact is small and there are multiple benefits, including operating more cost-effectively, reducing our energy use, which has an added environmental benefit,” a Transit spokesperson said to The News.

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New York City recently passed an anniversary it would rather not commemorate for it was the one-year mark of the MTA’s service cuts. On June 28, 2010, as we all know, the MTA slashed two subway lines, rerouting another and cut numerous bus routes in order to cover a substantial budget gap. It was the first time in generations that the MTA had engaged in such extreme across-the-board cuts, and as many representatives in Albany today continue to fight over transit funding, those cuts serve as a real reminder of the power of the legislative pen.

In the ensuing year, things have changed both on the periphery of transit in New York City and in the meaty center. Bus ridership has declined precipitously, and while slow boarding and sluggish surface traffic are certainly to blame, that New Yorkers must now wait longer for buses that aren’t as convenient is a major factor as well. Cut enough service and eventually, people stop showing up.

On other hand, some have had luck in pressuring the MTA to restore service. Last week, facing a lawsuit and political pressure, the MTA revived the X37 and X38, express routes that served Southern Brooklyn. The replacement lines “didn’t really perform as we had anticipated,” an authority spokesperson said.“There was crowding, traffic delays, it was like a loading imbalance, where you’d have one bus that was too crowded and another that was almost empty.” Yet, I still yearn for the B71 as I’ve grown quite familiar with the 20-minute walk from Park Slope to Bar Great Harry on Smith St.

In The Wall Street Journal yesterday, Andrew Grossman took an anecdotal look at those most impacted by the service cuts. The story he tells is a familiar one: Those with the fewest options before the cuts are the most inconvenienced today. He reports:

In the year since the bus that carried Milagros Franco across the Manhattan Bridge was eliminated, the 35-year-old has been getting home from work a different way: She drives her motorized wheelchair across the Brooklyn Bridge. “I could have said, ‘OK, well, I’m quitting my job now,’” she said. “But I get up and do what I have to do.”

…Bus ridership has dropped since the cuts, continuing a years-long trend. Some people who lost their bus lines have gone to the subways, but many have not. “People relied on those because they aren’t capable of getting into the subways,” said Bill Henderson, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Council to the MTA. “They tend to be older, they tend to be poorer.”

Pamela Golinski, an attorney who lives on the Upper East Side, used to ride an express bus to her office on Wall Street. After the MTA eliminated the line, she and a fellow rider tried to help a private operator run along the route. But the city shut that down, saying the operator didn’t have the necessary licenses. Now, she either rides a shared taxi that picks up at a stand near her apartment or pays a private van service.

Lois Hecht is driving her 12-year-old Mercedes station wagon more often. Three back surgeries have made it nearly impossible for her to climb the stairs out of the subway. She used to take three buses to get from her home in Prospect Heights to Park Slope, Carroll Gardens or Manhattan to run errands and see movies. She and her husband moved to the neighborhood from the Upper East Side 5½ years ago in part because of the nearby buses. But many of them don’t exist anymore.

This piece highlights those on the fringe, and it doesn’t paint a great portrait of the accessibility of the transit system. People who are too infirm to take the subway because of the stairs at every station used to rely on buses, but now those buses are gone. Access-A-Ride costs will go up in some cases, but in many others, these riders simply won’t take transit any longer.

The ultimate conclusions from the 2010 cuts are tough to draw with only Grossman’s piece. He does note at the end that the elimination of the V and use of the M up Sixth Ave. via the Chrystie St. Cut has been a boon for real estate developers and Middle Village and Bushwick residents, and I’d like to know more about the popularity and success of that switch. From what I’ve heard, it was actually a good one, as a real estate broker said to The Journal. “Absolutely love it,” he said. “We started selling quite strongly before. The fact that they changed the M train only helped me.”

Still, the fight for funding continues, and every time a bus line is eliminated or rerouted, people lose out on options and convenience. That’s not a net positive for anyone in the city.

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Jan
24

Death by a thousand cuts

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During the MTA Board’s committee meetings this morning, New York City Transit unveiled plans to adjust its bus scheduling, and the result are a bunch of minor cuts to bus schedules throughout the city. No routes will be scrapped, and the J train will in fact enjoy two additional morning trains. But neighborhoods will see bus wait times inch upward as certain routes are cut.

The changes, which you can find right here as a PDF, come across as minor. Some buses will see headways increased from 10 to 12 minutes. Others will see wait times go from five minutes to five minutes and thirty seconds. A few routes in some of the outer boroughs and Staten Island will see off-peak headways increase from 15 minutes to 20. Because of the addition of a few routes and the increase in J service, these changes will actually cost the MTA $300,000 a year, but they are cuts nonetheless.

According to the committee documents, the MTA is putting forth this proposal to “ensure that bus and subway schedules accurately match current rider demand and operating conditions…These changes also address the need for running time adjustments to more accurately reflect observed operating conditions.” It all sounds good, but there’s a fundamental problem of supply and demand. When it comes to public transit options, supply often drives demand. If I know a bus runs frequently and regularly, I’m more likely to take it than I otherwise would be. If Transit cuts back bus service so that trips are less frequent, it will make the bus a less attractive transportation alternative and will further drive down demand until they can cut the supply to zero. In a world where public transportation is a public good, these scalebacks are just a part of death by a thousand cuts.

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