Now and then, I like to see what’s happening in transit systems outside of New York City. Often, I’ll turn to Washington, D.C., for a glimpse at what an efficient — and much smaller — transit system looks like. The lessons from D.C. can be illuminating as we watch the MTA carom from one ill-fated project to another.

Earlier this week, the Washington Metro’s board announced that WMATA passengers would enjoy in-tunnel cell service by the fall of 2012. Lena H. Sun, a staff writer for the Washington Post, reports:

Metro officials said the agency and a consortium of wireless carriers are on track to install equipment so riders can receive and make cellphone calls on all carriers at the 20 busiest Metrorail stations by mid-October. Only Verizon and Sprint roaming customers can use their phones on the Metro now, and coverage is often spotty…

But don’t expect to stay connected between stations. That won’t happen until the consortium finishes installing cable and other equipment underground, a process that is likely to take until October 2012.

Under an agreement announced in February, Verizon, Sprint Nextel, AT&T and T-Mobile will be allowed to install equipment in the tunnels over the next four years. The agreement will provide the cash-strapped transit agency with nearly $25 million over the first 15 years. The estimated $2.4 million in expenses will also be paid by the wireless carriers.

Now, we can debate for hours whether or not cell phone service underground is a positive development. Every day, I see the impact of cell service on a subway ride. As my Manhattan-bound Q or B train snakes across the Manhattan Bridge and as my Brooklyn-bound trip heads off into the heart of Brooklyn every day, I see passengers scramble for their phones and being their furtive five-minute calls. Most are respectful as they try to keep their conversation to a minimum, but others are screamers, intent on informing the entire car what their significant other has at home for dinner that night.

As those trains head back underground, cell service is lost until the trenched, open-air tracks arrive at the Prospect Park stop. It may be silent, but it’s also a technological blackhole.

In Washington, Metro riders have enjoyed cell phone service for the better part of this decade. It’s not perfect, but it’s there. Furthermore, the WMATA has negotiated a contract that’s beneficial to all. The agency earns millions of dollars, and the cell companies get access to a new network of customers. Everyone — except those looking for a quiet ride — wins.

Meanwhile, in the Big Apple, the MTA keeps promising to find some company intent on writing the system at a price too low to believe, and time after time, the project stalls. Outside of the luxury of an underground cell network, the MTA’s system doesn’t have the capacity for proper emergency communications, and it just isn’t a modern system. At some point the technological modernization of the New York City subways will begin. We could do far worse than look to our neighbors to the south for inspiration.

Categories : WMATA
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  • Station agent cuts made official · Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard a lot about the MTA’s planned station agent cuts. Despite an Albany rescue plan, the authority has stayed true to its original decision to cut what transit officials view as the unnecessary station agent plan. Yesterday, the Board made it official as they voted to axe 270 station agents by the end of 2010. These cuts were part of a larger plan to cut around 1200 jobs as the MTA struggles to make ends meet.

    Despite these cuts, every single one of the system’s 468 stations will be staffed with at least one MTA worker at all times. However, this is but a technicality. Along 4th Ave. in Brooklyn, for example, the downtown and uptown platforms are not connected, and a passenger in need of assistance would have to mount two staircases and a six-lane avenue if the station agent were on the other side. Previously, I examined the psychology behind the station agents. As some claim to field up to four incidents a day, these maroon-vested workers will probably be missed. · (8)

At some point in the not-too-distant future — maybe next month, maybe in the fall — Gov. David Paterson will formally announce his selection for the newly combined top spot at the MTA. The new position will encompass the chair and CEO jobs, and it will eliminate the current bifurcated power structure atop the agency. Who it will be is anyone’s guess.

Meanwhile, yesterday marked Interim CEO and Executive Director Helena Williams’ first day and the job. She and current MTA Chair Dale Hemmerdinger, whose term expires in June, spoke about the MTA’s new few months and both, report the Daily News, want the top spot.

Both recognize, however, that Paterson will take his time and ultimately pick whomever he wants to pick. “The governor has a selection process in place, and it’s his prerogative,” Williams said. “Wherever it takes us, it takes us.”

Williams replaced the highly-respected and highly-respected Elliot Sander this week, and Sander’s departure was not without controversy. He is widely regarded as one of the city’s foremost transit policy experts, and Eliot Spitzer earned high marks for picking Sander. While Pete Donohue’s sources say that Hemmerdinger is angling for the top spot, Paterson should look for another transit expert who can guide the MTA through a tough time financially while continuing to grow the system to fill the top role. We do not need another real estate mogul in charge.

To that end, the Regional Plan Association feels that, given the chance, Williams could be the right person for the job. Neysa Pranger, the RPA’s public affairs director, wrote yesterday:

The agency needs a leader with both vision and bureaucratic skills to meet its various challenges…The good thing about Williams is that she has ample quantities of both. She is not a politician, or a political contributor. She is a transit executive. Previously she led Long Island Bus, and she has been president of LIRR since 2007.

How long she will stay as MTA chief executive is anyone’s guess. Even though her appointment is only interim, it is not a stretch to assume she could be in the seat for longer than expected. The governor has said a national and international search will be conducted for a permanent replacement, but it may be hard to find a professional appointee from another system for what could be only a year-long job since Governor Paterson is up for re-election in 2010.

Other factors that may discourage applicants are the circumstances under which Lee Sander exited and the fact that the governor will need to tightly manage the agency heading into an election year…This could leave the MTA in a terrible bind. If the economy and thus revenues continue to decline, the MTA may have it’s hands tied as it is legally bound to balance its budget. This could mean unpleasant decisions on the MTA’s capital (and in many ways less physically visible) side of its balance sheet. Exacerbating the problem is the MTA recently got only half a loaf in Albany with regards to the capital plan and still faces long challenges in funding maintenance and expansion plans.

Williams should handle these challenges as well as anyone. She has a keen sense of politics honed in the jungle of Long Island politics and has shown she has an excellent sense of the transit system’s needs.

A visionary, experienced leader who can navigate transportation policy and transit politics? Sounds good to me.

Categories : MTA Politics
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In the annals of New York City public transit, the egregious law suits make the headlines. In February, for instance, the MTA came out on the wrong end of a case when a jury awarded $2.3 million to a man who lost a leg after falling onto the tracks with a BAC twice the legal limit. In April, a victim of a bus accident won over $27 million.

It seems that those cases — the ones that make the headlines — represent the tip of a large iceberg. Last year, the MTA spent around $57.6 million on personal injury claims. That total, which comes out of the agency’s operating budget, has increased by over $20 million since 2004, and the MTA wants to put an end to these injury claims. The Post’s Tom Namako has more on the suits:

The chronically cash-strapped MTA has become a money train for riders filing personal-injury lawsuits, forcing taxpayers to dole out tens of millions of dollars a year. The payouts come from the MTA’s day-to-day operating budget, which recently got a $1.6 billion bailout for 2009.

About 2,750 claims are filed every year, from people taking a simple spill while on MTA property to bone-headed buffoons who try — and fail — to outrun subway trains, said Martin Schnabel, NYC Transit’s chief lawyer.

“There are a small, but not insignificant, number of cases every year of people intentionally on the tracks coming into contact with trains,” Schnabel said.

Per Namako, the MTA Audit Committee has isolated this area of liability as a source of lost MTA revenue. According to a recent committee report, the MTA is currently facing 7800 lawsuits and receives around 3000 claims a year.

While juries tend to look favorably upon the MTA — 96 out of 150 jury decisions last year were in favor of the transit authority — agency lawyers would like to see Albany ban suits from those who “get themselves into dangerous situations.” In other words, if another Dustin Dibble is too drunk to stay on the platform, the MTA would prefer not to be liable for his injuries.

As an aspiring law student, transit advocate and tax- and fare-paying subway rider, I can certainly appreciate where the MTA is coming from on this issue. At a time when the agency is facing an extreme cash shortage and fares will soon be going up, they don’t want to be liable for the stupidity and irresponsibility of their riders.

The question centers around limiting liability. How can the MTA block these lawsuits from the get-go? Right now, if the MTA is not at fault, a jury would decide it so. The authority would still incur costs of litigation, and those mount up substantially over time. If Albany is serious about reining in MTA spending, tort reform would certainly be an interesting starting place. I don’t think our state legislature is spoiling for that fight though.

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  • Streetwise map not so subway-wise · When the MTA announced its Doomsday Budget over the winter, most observers did not believe the authority would actually go through with the plan. While Albany dillied and dallied its way to a half-baked solution, New York’s transit advocates were skeptical that the MTA would cut service and bolster fares by 25 percent. Even isolated Albany politicos politicians aren’t immune to that much of a transportation disaster.

    Despite our guarded optimism, a popular map-making company was not so confident. Streetwise, the publishers of the ubiquitous laminated fold-out maps, printed their 2009 New York City edition with the Doomsday cuts in place, amNew York’s Heather Haddon reported this morning. The map has no W or Z trains and features now-wrong subway information. The company sent the map to the printers earlier this year while Albany was still hammering out a solution, and a spokesperson claimed including the cuts “wasn’t an easy decision to make.”

    While future editions of this map will feature the proper New York City transit information, the Florida-based company has no plans to recall the incorrect maps. For transit buffs, this is something of a collector’s item. For those relying on the map — and the tourists in particular — this misprint will just lead to more underground confusion. · (9)

mtaoig When I’m waiting for a train, I’ll often take a look at the rubber bumper along the edge of the subway platform. Generally, I don’t like what I see. The bumpers are in various states of erosion, and sometimes the boards are visibly loose or just not there.

The bumper story came to a head in February of 2008 when a station collapsed. That day, part of the Kings Highway station platform fell and took a 14-year-old with it. The next day, NYC Transit President Howard Roberts promised an inspection of every single platform.

Today, we have a follow-up. After condemning NYC Transit’s response time in a preliminary report in January, the MTA Inspector General released his final report about the state of the platform edges, and the picture he paints is not a pretty one.

The document — available here as a PDF — carries with it a rather regal title: “An Inquiry Into Whether MTA New York City Transit Consistently and Correctly Identifies and Reports Subway Platform-Edge Safety Defects.” As you could imagine, Barry Kluger isn’t too pleased with the MTA’s efforts at correcting and addressing their platform issues. He summarizes:

  • Platform-level inspectors at NYCT subway stations failed to correctly identify and report platform-edge safety defects visible at 16 of 23 stations sampled by OIG (70%), as confirmed by top officials in charge of station maintenance based upon their review of NYCT records and OIG photographs.
  • Out of an OIG sample of 25 comments made by platform-level inspectors reporting non-safety defects, 22 of those comments used language that actually indicated safety defects, according to a review of those comments by top station maintenance officials.
  • Station Operations Division middle managers are not promptly resolving confusion caused by inspectors who describe platform-edge conditions as safety defects, but rate and report them as non-safety defects.
  • Different inspectors described the same platform-edge condition inconsistently. For example, inspection reports covering one station in the OIG sample, on five different days during a nineteen-day period, with no intervening repair, showed that two inspectors described the rubbing boards as “ok,” two others described them as “loose” (a safety defect) and a fifth noted that “rubbing boards in need of repair.”
  • While NYCT requires that repair of so-called “non-safety defects” (which include safety defects that have been temporarily repaired) be completed within 60 days, its stated goal is to address 75% of those defects on time. Nevertheless, NYCT only addressed within 60 days some 41% of those rubbing board defects reported in the first eight months of 2008. Further, the backlog of defective rubbing boards is so great that NYCT’s goal for bringing these boards into a state of good repair is now December 2009.

In the end, Kluger offers up a succinct conclusion. “Rubbing boards with safety defects resulting from damage and deterioration pose a serious,predictable and widespread safety hazard, especially on subway lines with outdoor stations,” he says. He also recommends that New York City Transit systematize defect analysis and prioritize oversight and safety repair.

Interestingly, the Inspector General’s report ends with a letter from NYC Transit President Howard Roberts. In response to the IG’s preliminary report from January, Roberts stresses how he will direct Transit officials to improve their inspection efforts. Roberts, one of the key officials behind the Line Manager pilot, believes his program will help streamline platform repair efforts. The jury is out on that program, but I believe Roberts is on the right track with that promise. Now let’s see the Line Managers deliver.

Comments (1)
  • The uninformed masses take on the MTA · New Yorkers love to complain about the MTA, and no matter how little people know about the situation, they always think they know better than those in charge. In the past, I’ve taken on seemingly ignorant commenters on The Times’ City Room blog. Over the weekend, The Post gave us another gift: Unedited comments sent to the MTA via its website.

    The comments — printed here for our viewing pleasure — are priceless. The MTA chiefs are called “morons,” “nimrods,” “thieves” and various other R-rated honorariums. Someone complains about missing the AirTrain because he or she forget to check the E train service advisories. Another bemoans a stench found in a station staircase without identifying the station in question. Others are proclaiming the eight percent fare hike as “literally taking food off my table.”

    It is a true stereotype that New Yorkers love to complain. Generally, they do so with limited knowledge of the situation, and the MTA is no example. There are genuine reasons to complain about the MTA just as there are genuine reasons to praise it. But when the murmuring crowd is mostly ignorant, few are going to listen. · (3)

Since the Ravitch Report landed on the desk of Gov. David Paterson in December, “internal belt-tightening” has turned into an MTA buzzword. Throughout the build-up to the Doomsday budget and all throughout the transit fight in Albany, the MTA has proclaimed itself ready for cuts. These cuts could come in the form of fewer station agents, one-person train operations and fewer stations cleaners. While the agency has given lip service to the idea of cutting down its bureaucracy at MTA HQ, a new report begs to differ.

In a piece published in The Post on Sunday of a three-day weekend, James Fanelli reports that the agency has actually increased staff salaries at HQ by around $3.46 million. He writes:

Between March 2008 and March 2009, 140 directors, managers and other employees who work in the MTA’s main Madison Avenue offices received raises, according to a Post analysis of agency records. Of these bump-ups, 79 came without title changes.

In the same period, the Midtown HQ’s headcount surged by 43 staffers to 695, records show. The new hires included a $75,000-a-year photographer, a $117,000-per-year director of police support and a $134,204-a-year director of workforce development. Also, for $172,000 a year, it brought on a “chief diversity officer” who is supposed to help give contracts to minority-owned businesses. All were newly created positions.

Overall, payroll at headquarters rose 6.7 percent to $55.5 million.

Fanelli spoke to MTA spokesperson Ernest Tollerson about the increases, and Tollerson noted that many of them were cost-of-living increases. He also said that many of the new hires will help save money in the future.

It seems to me that this story is more about The Post riling up anti-MTA sentiments than anything else. The $3.5 million in increases represent less than one quarter of one percent of the MTA’s current debt, and the agency has to retain the workers who help move over eight million people a day.

At a time when the agency is working to convince its union to take a pay freeze, when the agency is raising fares, when the agency wants to cut station agents, this news looks bad. In a world in which failed CEOs earn tens of millions of dollars though, annual raises for mid-level workers is hardly a national crime. With an Albany-mandated audit heading the MTA’s way, we’ll see those bureaucratic cuts soon enough.

Graphic detailing the spending courtes of The Post.

Categories : MTA Economics
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A Shuttle train sits at Grand Central, decked out in Google Maps advertising. (Photo by flickr user Paolo Mastrangelo)

Around the country, advertising revenues are dropping precipitously. From traditional bastions of print media to online news outlets, any business dependent upon advertising is feeling the crunch. The MTA is no exception.

As revenue goes, advertising isn’t really a key source of money for transit systems. In total, according to the Federal Transit Administration numbers, transit agencies drew in $334 million in revenue in 2007. That total makes up around one percent of nationwide transit revenue. Closer to home, the MTA reported over $100 million in revenue in each of the last two years.

Not this year, says William Neuman. According to The Times scribe, the agency is seeing lower-than-projected revenue from advertising due to missed minimum payments by Titan Worldwide. The advertising agency is tasked with selling ad space on buses and subways and in stations and owes the MTA around $7.5 million for a three-month period ending in April. Neuman reports:

The company, Titan Worldwide, fell short a total of $7.5 million in mandatory payments to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority from February through April, citing lower than expected ad sales. That would be enough to buy 16 new buses for the authority, which recently received a state bailout in the face of multibillion-dollar budget deficits over the next few years.

“This is another example of the M.T.A.’s exposure to the global economic recession,” said Aaron Donovan, a spokesman for the authority, which plans to raise fares and tolls by about 10 percent in June…

Another company, CBS Outdoor, sells ads in the subway system, and it fulfilled its contractual requirement of making a $55 million lump-sum payment to the authority in January for all of 2009.

Neuman’s article is chock full of interesting information about subway and bus advertising. For example, an ad on the outside of a Manhattan-based bus sells for $1500 a month this year. In 2008, the MTA could command $1800 for the same ad.

On the business side, overall sales for CBS Outdoors, another MTA advertising partner, are strong due to the new ad spots on the outside of train cars. Titan, on the other hand, still owes the agency money from last year, and the agency may have to renegotiate its deal with the MTA to avoid incurring crippling penalties and payments.

“We’re trying to work with them to find a way to keep this contract in place,” Donovan said to The Times. “Our goal is to work it out and minimize the impact on the M.T.A.’s bottom line.”

Neuman also notes that Titan’s original bid for the 10-year contract with the MTA was for $103 million more in minimum guaranteed payments than the next highest bidder. William Apfelbaum, the company’s chairman, said that the difference in minimum payments would not impact his company were the economy strong.

In the end, the MTA isn’t really relying on advertising revenue for a significant portion of its budget, but the story remains the same: A public transportation agency should not have to attempt to squeeze every last dollar out of advertising just to stay afloat. We applaud the MTA for looking at new ways to draw in revenue through advertising, but as long as that money is icing on the cake and not a key part to the budget, we would have nothing to fear.

Categories : Subway Advertising
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Every Friday, when NYC Transit sends out the weekend service advisories, the press release always discusses the agency’s $10 billion capital improvement plan. Yesterday, Infrastructurist ran a piece on China’s transit investment plan.

Outside of New York, the U.S. is hardly committed to transit, and here’s Jebediah Reed’s take on it:

As of March 31, China has committed $259 billion to the project, and plans to spend nearly a half trillion dollars more in the next three years, boosting the total investment to $730 billion by 2012…The US–a country with a per capita GDP about 16 times that of China–has set rail as a national priority and has committed… $13 billion. Or, about 2 percent as much in China. This, of course, is in a place where it costs a hell of a lot more to get anything done.

“Why, oh, why,” he asks, “do we have such difficulty approaching serious projects with the required seriousness in this country?”

The discussion on Infrastructurist moves into the comments, and it is, of course, enlightening. China’s approach to everything — politics, governing, investment, society — is far different from ours. Yet, China has the right idea in investing in a legitimate national rail network. If they can do it, so can we.

Anyway, just something to think about for Memorial Day weekend. I’ll be back with new content on Tuesday morning unless I got inspired during the long weekend. In the meantime, let’s get to the service advisories.

A few notes: The subways will run on a Sunday schedule on Memorial Day Monday. That means, for example, no B, V and W trains, among others. Pay attention the service advisories. Some run only through Monday morning and others encompass Memorial Day.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 23 to 5 a.m. Monday, May 25, Bronx-bound 25 trains run express from 3rd Avenue-149th Street to East 180th Street due to cable installation near East 180th Street.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, May 23 to 10 p.m. Sunday, May 24, 3 trains run in two sections due to track panel installation:

* Between 148th Street and Crown Heights-Utica Avenue and
* Between Crown Heights-Utica Avenue and News Lots Avenue (runs every 20 minutes)

From 4 a.m. Saturday, May 23 to 10 p.m. Sunday, May 24, there are no 4 trains between Crown Heights-Utica Avenue and New Lots Avenue due to track panel installation. Customers may take the 3 instead.

From 5 a.m. to 12 noon Sunday, May 24, there are no 5 trains between 149th-Grand Concourse and East 180th Streets due to rail repair. Customers may take the 2 instead.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, May 23 to 10 p.m. Sunday, May 24, the last stop for some Bronx-bound 6 trains is 3rd Avenue-138th Street due to track panel installation between Morrison-Sound View Avenues and St. Lawrence Avenue.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, May 23 to 10 p.m. Sunday, May 24, Bronx-bound 6 trains run express from Hunts Point Avenue to Parkchester due to track panel installation between Morrison-Sound View Avenues and St. Lawrence Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 23, to 5 a.m. Monday, May 25, Bronx-bound 6 trains run express from 3rd Avenue to Hunts Point Avenue due to platform edge rehabilitation at Cypress Avenue, East 143rd Street, East 149th Street and Longwood Avenue stations.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, May 23 to 10 p.m. Sunday, May 24, Manhattan-bound 7 trains run express from Willets Point to Queensboro Plaza due to track panel installation.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 23 to 5 a.m. Tuesday, May 26, A trains run local between 168th Street and Euclid Avenue due to switch renewal south of West 4th Street.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 23, to 5 a.m. Tuesday, May 26, there are no C trains running due to switch renewal south of West 4th Street. Customers should take the A instead.

From 4 a.m. Saturday, May 23 to 10 p.m. Sunday, May 24, Manhattan-bound D trains run on the N line from Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue to 36th Street (Brooklyn) due to work at the 38th Street Yard.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 23, to 5 a.m. Tuesday, May 26, Brooklyn-bound D trains run local from 34th Street-Herald Square to West 4th Street due to switch renewal south of West 4th Street.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, May 22, to 5 a.m. Monday, May 25, free shuttle buses replace trains between Norwood-205th Street and Bedford Park Blvd. due to a track chip out north of Bedford Park Boulevard.

From 11:30 p.m. Friday, May 22 to 5 a.m. Tuesday, May 26, Manhattan-bound EF trains run local from Forest Hills-71st Avenue to Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue to due to a track chip out north of Grand Avenue.

From 12:30 a.m. Saturday, May 23 to 5 a.m. Tuesday, May 26, Jamaica-bound EF trains run local from Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue to Forest Hills-71st Avenue due to a track chip out north of Grand Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 23 to 5 a.m. Tuesday, May 26, Brooklyn-bound F trains run on the E line from Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue to 42nd Street-8th Avenue, then on the A line to Jay Street. This is due to switch renewal south of West 4th Street and the Broadway-Lafayette to Bleecker Street transfer connection.

From 8:30 p.m. Friday, May 22 to 5 a.m. Tuesday, May 26, there is no G train service between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Court Square. Trains run every 20 minutes between Court Square and Smith-9th Streets. Customers should take the E or R instead.

From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 23 and Sunday, May 24, Manhattan-bound J trains skip Flushing Avenue, Lorimer and Hewes Streets due to rail replacement at Gates Avenue.

From 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Sunday, May 24, uptown N trains skip 49th Street (Manhattan) due to track cleaning. – It’s like a trip to the dentist!

From 12:01 a.m. to 5 a.m. Saturday, May 23, uptown N trains skip Prince, 8th, 23rd, and 28th Streets due to track cleaning.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 23 to 5 a.m. Monday, May 25, N trains run local between Pacific Street and 59th Street (Brooklyn) due to subway tunnel rehabilitation.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 23 to 5 a.m. Monday, May 25, Brooklyn-bound NR trains are rerouted over the Manhattan Bridge between Canal Street and DeKalb Avenue due to subway tunnel rehabilitation. Customers may take the 4 at nearby stations.

From 12:30 a.m. Saturday, May 23 to 5 a.m. Tuesday, May 26, R trains are extended to the Jamaica-179th Street F station due to a track chip out north of Grand Avenue.

From 6:30 a.m. Saturday, May 23 to 7 p.m. Sunday, May 24, there is no Franklin Avenue Shuttle service between Franklin Avenue and Prospect Park due to rail repair. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service.

Categories : Service Advisories
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