Category Archives: Infrastructure

Infrastructure Funding and Financing: Another Trumpian Disaster in the Making

Let’s start with the ASCE’s report card on Nevada’s infrastructure.  The last report card on our kitchen table gives us an overall average C-.  Nevada’s two lowest grades (both D’s) are in categories for schools and dams. The claims from the current White House administration would imply that Nevada will see marvelous levels of investment in Job Creating Infrastructure Projects.  Not. So. Fast.

There are some questions related to projected infrastructure legislation which Nevada elected officials may want to consider very carefully.

#1. Does the infrastructure legislation address Nevada’s greatest needs?  The answer at present is “maybe not.” The commentary coming from the White House, and from members of Congress imply that most of the infrastructure plans are part of the Transportation budget.  [Hill] Again, roads and bridges are important, so are airports, but the greatest needs in this state are for projects and funding for upgrading schools and dams.

This past February a dam failed in Elko county, flooding farmland, homes, and stopping traffic on the Union Pacific RR. Obviously dams must eventually get their due. First, we should notice that the state of Nevada doesn’t keep a ranking of hazardous dams, most of which fall into the “earthen” category.  Secondly, it should be noted that a high hazard dam refers to the damage possible should the dam fail, not to the actual condition of the dams themselves.  Third, many dams in this state are privately owned.  About one third of our 650+ dams are constructed for flood control, another third for mining operations, and the remaining third fall into the amorphous category “anything else.” The state has been relying on 11 engineers to keep track of the 650+ dams, and Governor Sandoval’s budget proposal calls for three additional engineers in the Water Division for the next fiscal term. [LVRJ]

School facility upgrades and construction generally lie outside the common understanding of ‘infrastructure’ expenditures, being the province of local school districts, and based on the shifting sands of bond issues. Nothing signaled by the administration thus far would suggest expansion of federal interest in this category of infrastructure investment.

#2.  Will the legislation address Nevada’s needs for the construction and maintenance of roads and highways?  Maybe not.   The situation at present:

“The Nevada Department of Transportation maintains 5,300 miles of state highways, which includes many rural roadways within Nevada. Without an increase in the gas tax since 1992, the state funding levels have stagnated and Federal funding has remained at a similar level the past 5 years. Hence, the maintenance of the existing highway system has fallen behind and the state will need approximately $285 million annually for the next decade to catch up on the current backlog of highway maintenance. The current funding levels provide only 60% to 70% of the required funding to maintain the state highways. This has resulted in an increase in the number of lane miles requiring either an overlay or full rehabilitation from 28% two years ago to 38% currently.” [ASCE]

New construction is great, no one should argue against it where it’s needed to improve the flow and traffic and attendant commerce, however, when nearly 40% of the current roadways need overlays or full rehabilitation, the problem is focused on maintaining what we have at present not necessarily on new construction projects.

#3. Does the administration’s plan differentiate between financing and funding?  This is important.  A definition is in order:

“Infrastructure funding and financing are different concerns. Funding specifies how resources will be collected to pay for infrastructure construction, operations and maintenance, and repairs. Financing generally concerns how to raise the large upfront costs needed to build the infrastructure.” [EPI]

So, the administration has spoken of “a trillion dollars in infrastructure investment,” what does this mean?  For the administration is apparently means “leveraging private dollars.” Again, some translation is necessary.  What the administration is talking about is the financing of construction projects. And, we’re back to the difference between funding and financing — if states are facing the same questions posed back in 2015, when Republicans proposed that HTF projects be limited to the revenue accumulated from gasoline and diesel taxation, then many projects, especially of the improvement and maintenance variety will be put on hold. [BondBuyer] Infrastructure funding will be a function of how the administration budget addresses the issue of raising the money necessary to construct, operate, and maintain.  However, if the administration is speaking of “leveraging private funds,” then we should assume that the White House is referring to new construction.  And, now we enter the land of the P3.

A P3 is: “Public-private partnerships (P3s) are contractual agreements formed between a public agency and a private sector entity that allow for greater private sector participation in the delivery and financing of transportation projects.” [DOT]

Let’s put this question of infrastructure investment in purely financial terms:  Who benefits from P3 structuring?  Hint: It isn’t necessarily the state and local governments because bond yields for such things as school construction, road construction, and other large projects have been dropping since their “highs” around 1982 (13+%) to the current rates (3.5+%). [MuniBond]

Bluntly stated, it’s not the financing that’s a problem for state and local governments, they’re paying almost historic low yields (interest) on the bonds they’ve issued for major projects.  The administration is approaching the infrastructure investment issue from the wrong end of the stick — focusing on the financing and not the funding.

#4. Is the use of the P3 structure based on the needs and capacities of the states and municipalities or the desires of private investment?  Some attention is required because:

“In theory, they can(P3)  be effective—but they provide no free lunches. Funding must still be found for the projects—and ordinary households will end up paying the costs through taxes or user fees. In addition, the details of contract construction and oversight are daunting and require a competent, democratically accountable government to manage them. In short, P3s do not allow for simple outsourcing because they do not bypass the need to fund infrastructure or the need for competent public management.” [EPI]

Or, P3s don’t replace the more traditional methods of financing — local and state taxation is still required for paying project costs. There’s nothing ‘simple’ about these arrangements, and they require extensive oversight and management.  Before leaping into a P3 it should be revealed that these generally allow governments and investors to ignore the requirement of Davis-Bacon Act ‘prevailing wages.’ This may ‘create jobs’ but it doesn’t create ‘good paying jobs’ in the construction sector.

#5. Does the administration plan specify financing and funding of infrastructure projects or is it simply a “tax credit” giveaway to investors?  It certainly sounds like it at this point, but the administration, as is becoming more obvious every day, seems to be short on specifics, and the only solid at the moment is the “tax credit” portion of the pronouncements.  If this is a tax credit for projects already in the planning stage, then it’s hard to characterize this as a bright and shiny new proposal.

#6. Location, Location, Location?  Granted that Nevada is an urban state, with most of the population located in two counties, but the roads, bridges, and dams are aligned through predominantly rural areas. Investors, in P3 or other financing schemes, can clearly see the benefits of construction in urban areas (toll roads, toll bridges, etc.) Rural areas, not so much. Nor does the financing strategy address other infrastructure issues in urban areas — how, for example, does Clark County improve its public transportation facilities and components? Washoe County? Or, Douglas, Lyon counties, and Carson City?  How will investment be directed to poorer areas, or areas under served by current transportation systems? Stated more generally:

“The other problem is that Trump’s approach makes it less likely he’ll actually create new jobs. If the customer base can afford it, and they really need the infrastructure, then the project is almost certainly already profitable and private firms are already willing to do it. The tax credit just sweetens the deal on the margins. Where there’s demand, the private market can already create jobs. The less you’re willing to redistribute, the fewer new jobs you can create.” [TheWeek]

This is another point at which the magic hand of the Market fails on one side and succeeds on the other — where there is demand (and the capacity to meet that demand, the tax credits are minimally useful (except to investors) — where there is great need but little capacity to meet the demand, then the tax credits aren’t an inducement to job creation.

We need to take some care to observe whether the “infrastructure” plan is (1) truly about infrastructure needs in Nevada? (2) truly a job creating plan and not merely a way to get tax credit benefits to the investor class, or ignore the Davis Bacon Act requirements for American workers, (3) about getting the infrastructure investments where it is actually needed.

Caveat Emptor.

 

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Filed under Economy, Federal budget, Infrastructure, Nevada highways, Nevada politics, Politics, public transportation

The Republican Money Pits

money whirlpool So, how many ways can the House GOP find to waste taxpayer money? Let’s start with the House Oversight Committee which wasn’t pleased with the FBI’s conclusions on their manufactured outrage narrative concerning Secretary Clinton’s emails – now they want to haul the FBI director in for a grilling. [TPM]  However, this is only the latest.

Meanwhile, it’s estimated by the Department of Agriculture that 15.3 million children in the United States under the age of 18 live in homes where they don’t have consist access to enough nutritious food to sustain a health life. [FA.org]

It was reported yesterday that House leadership was meeting to discuss whether to launch a formal investigation into the sit-in staged by House Democrats over the failure of the leadership to bring a gun safety bill to the House floor. [TPM]

Meanwhile,  every day 7 children in the United States die in gun violence, and another 41 survive being shot in assaults (31), suicide attempts (1), and accidental shootings (8). [BC.org]

Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) continues to pump for more investigations into … Planned Parenthood. Who would have guessed? Not that the committee hasn’t soaked up some 80% of the supplemental funds for the House Administration Committee, that would be $790,000.  [Esq]

Meanwhile,  the CDC reports that between 2011-2014 the prevalence of children with obesity aged 2-5 yrs. was 8.9%, 17.5% among children between the ages of 6 and 11; and, 20.5% among adolescents aged 12 to 19. [CDC pdf]

The House Republicans racked up approximately $7,000,000 in expenses for its interminable Benghazi hearings.  [BBN]  The State Department spent about $14,000,000 trying to process and present information requested by the Committee, the Pentagon reported about $2 million in expenses associated with the “investigations.”

Meanwhile,  when the FAST Act expires at the end of FY 2020, the Congressional Budget Office projects the average annual shortfall to the federal Highway Trust Fund will grow to $16 billion, [TRIP scrib] and we have a backlog of pavement projects of about $59 billion, and another $30 billion needed to improve and maintain bridges.  This isn’t even county the $100 billion we need for highway system expansion and enhancement. [TRIP scrib]

Is it not reasonable to conclude that the House GOP is far more interested in political scandal mongering than it is in … investigating why 15.3 million children aren’t getting enough nutritious food to eat? Or, why 20% of our teenagers are suffering the health effects of obesity? Or, why we’re losing 7 children every day to gun violence?  Or, why we’re only spending 61% of what we should be allocating to the repair and maintenance of our national highway system?

Is there to be no investigation into why there isn’t adequate affordable housing in one single county in the entire United States? [Fortune]  Why aren’t members of the Congressional leadership interested in hearing why the gender pay gap is the widest for blue collar women? [Detroit News]

Instead, the House GOP seems entangled in the past, engaged in corybantic fits of furor over all but imaginary “threats” while veritably ignoring the very real economic, health, educational, infrastructure, and commercial interests of this country.  A person can reside in the past only so long as the future doesn’t catch up.

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Filed under Gun Issues, Health Care, Infrastructure, Republicans, youth

Local Water, the EPA: Beyond Goodsprings

Water Faucet EPA

The Reno Gazette Journal reports that there are 23 local water systems in Nevada which are not in compliance with drinking water standards (there are currently 22, but more on that later).  Three local systems listed in the article have lead contamination levels exceeding the lead standard, 15 ppb (parts per billion) as the “action level.”  The public needs this information. However, the agency responsible for establishing the maximum contaminant level (MCL) standards is the whipping boy of choice for the Republican Party.  In short – it really doesn’t do to get up in arms about water or air pollution levels and then call for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The regulatory system isn’t all that complicated. The EPA establishes the standards and then it’s up to the states to devise the implementation.  There’s a reason for this. Setting national standards means that states can’t compete in a ‘race to the bottom’ in which some states seek to attract industry by lowering standards until they are in competition to achieve the status of “Worse Than Any Pig Would Ever Consider in a Sty.”  And, potentially damaging everyone else’s air and water in the process.  However, this hasn’t stopped Over-Hyped Demagogue Donald Trump from calling for handing over environmental regulation to the individual states.  [WaPo]

Nor has this made much of an impression on Seven Mountain Dominionist Ted Cruz; “Cruz has called the EPA a “radical” agency that has imposed “illegal” limits on greenhouse gases from power plants. “I think states should press back using every tool they have available,” the Texas senator has said. “We’ve got to rein in a lawless executive that is abusing its power.” [WaPo]

Ohio Governor John Kasich has been critical of the Michigan attempts to address its man-made, GOP inspired, water quality issues in Flint, MI, but hasn’t been on top of the situation with the Sebring, OH water contamination. [TP]

The 2008 Republican national platform was exceptionally mealy-mouthed about environmental protection:

“Our national progress toward cleaner air and water has been a major accomplishment of the American people. By balancing environmental goals with economic growth and job creation, our diverse economy has made possible the investment needed to safeguard natural resources, protect endangered species, and create healthier living conditions. State and local initiatives to clean up contaminated sites — brownfields — have exceeded efforts directed by Washington. That progress can continue if grounded in sound science, long-term planning, and a multiuse approach to resources.”

It’s not likely that much more will come from a 2016 version.   Nor should we expect much in the way of support for addressing the national problems associated with our drinking water systems.  Remember the ASCE’s Report Card on American Infrastructure (2013)?

“At dawn of the 21st century, much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States. Assuming every pipe would need to be replaced, the cost over the coming decades could reach more than $1 trillion, according to the American Water Works Association (AWWA). The quality of drinking water in the United States remains universally high, however. Even though pipes and mains are frequently more than 100 years old and in need of replacement, outbreaks of disease attributable to drinking water are rare.”

Not to put too fine a point to it, but as a nation we’re running on a Run-to-Ruin system in which local water distributors are functioning with outdated infrastructure while trying to maintain acceptable levels of quality.  Goodsprings Elementary School offers us an example of what can happen given a 1913 building and 21st century water quality standards. [RGJ]  If Goodsprings was an isolated example, then we could address the aging pipes and move on, but it’s not that isolated, nor that uncommon.  Current EPA estimates indicate we are having to replace between 4,000 and 5,000 miles of drinking water mains in this country on an annual basis, and that the annual replacement rate will peak sometime around 2035 with 16,000 and 20,000 miles of aging pipe needing to be replaced each year. [ASCE]

Putting The Public Back In Public Utility

I am going to start with some basic assumptions. First, that a family or person should be able to move to any part of this great land and expect to find clean water running from the faucet.  Secondly, that it is not a good idea to allow individual states to set drinking water standards, since some might find it inconvenient or inexpedient to set scientifically reliable standards in the interest of “development” or “industrialization.”  Such a piece meal approach would put paid to the first basic assumption.   So, if we’re agreed that any person in this country should have a reasonable expectation of clean drinking water then we need national standards.

Some of the standards are easier than others.  Arsenic contamination levels offer an example of a complex problem with some nuanced related issues.  The MCL (maximum contaminant level) for arsenic was lowered in 2001 from 50 ppb to 10 ppb. Public water systems were to be in compliance by January 23, 2006. [EPA] [More information at FAS pdf] The Reno Gazette Journal reports ten Nevada water systems not in compliance.  One, the McDermitt GID has recently been declared in compliance with a current projected annual running average below 10 ppb after the system put in a new central well.

Arsenic enters the drinking water systems one of two ways, either through industrial activity or as a naturally occurring contaminant.  If the system is west of the Rocky Mountains it’s a reasonably good bet that the arsenic is naturally occurring.  It’s probably not too far off the mark to say that if the standard were set at 15 ppb most Nevada water systems would be in compliance, but the standard is 10 and that’s ultimately what matters.

The smaller public water systems have more trouble meeting the standards than the larger ones, as described by the BSDW:  “The smaller systems are the ones that tend to struggle with regaining compliance because they typically have limited financial resources so we have to collectively figure out ways to help that community get back to compliance,” said Jennifer Carr, NDEP deputy administrator. “Larger systems such as TMWA also have more personnel to tackle projects whereas some of our smaller water systems are operated by one person who might be doing another side job.” [RGJ]

And, now we’re down to the gritty part: Where does the money come from to resolve contaminant problems with arsenic? Or, for that matter, other water infrastructure issues?    The State Revolving Fund provides low interest loans for water infrastructure projects in the state; and can in some circumstances offer “forgiven” loans to small public water services.  The “bottom line” is that in 2016 there will be a need for approximately $279 million for arsenic treatment, groundwater treatment, storage tank replacements, metering systems, and distribution lines in Nevada.  And, the worse news, “Not all will be funded.” [KTVN]

The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund was created in 1996 to support water systems and state safe water programs.  “The 51 DWSRF programs function like infrastructure banks by providing low interest loans to eligible recipients for drinking water infrastructure projects. As money is paid back into the state’s revolving loan fund, the state makes new loans to other recipients. These recycled repayments of loan principal and interest earnings allow the state’s DWSRF to “revolve” over time.”  [EPA]   As of 2014 this system had provided $27.9 billion to water suppliers to improve drinking water treatment, improve sources of drinking water, providing safe storage tanks, fixing leaking or aging distribution pipe, and other projects to protect public health. [EPA] The EPA estimates that small public water systems nationwide, those serving populations less than 3,330,  will need approximately $64.5 billion for infrastructure needs. [EPA 5th report pdf]

What was the Republican controlled Congress’s response? They may have avoided a shutdown, but the waters weren’t exactly flowing:

The bill provides $863.2 million for the DWSRF  well below President Obama’s request of $1.186 billion and more than $40 million below the programs FY2015 appropriation.While the figure represents the lowest DWSRF appropriation in several years, it is significantly above the FY16 funding levels originally proposed by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, each of which would have cut DWSRF funding to below $780 million. [UIM]

What have we learned?

  • The Republican candidates for the presidency show little to no enthusiasm for infrastructure investments in general, and beyond bemoaning the state of Flint’s water system which must be someone’s fault “just not ours,” even less enthusiasm for funding local drinking water improvement projects.
  • The Republicans in Congress were only too happy to cut funding for the best source for local public water companies projects, in the name of “fiscal responsibility” – meaning, one could think, that preserving tax cuts for the rich is preferable to providing clean drinking water to everyone.
  • The infrastructure needs in this country are serious and go well beyond fixing bridges and filling pot-holes.  This, and we’ve not yet reached the peak of distribution line replacement needs coming up in the next 20 years.
  • “Austerity” is a lovely buzz word, and “We’d love to do it but we just can’t afford to” is a fine campaign trail stump speech phrase, but these won’t keep the water coming from the tap clean and safe.  We need to stop thinking of our infrastructure as an expense and begin to consider it for what it is – an investment; an investment in the capacity of our cities and towns to provide basic services so that economic activity can take place.
  • And, NO it isn’t a good idea to abolish the EPA.

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Filed under Appropriations, Congress, conservatism, Economy, EPA, Infrastructure, nevada health, Politics, public health, Water

From Deep in the Dark Heart of Texas: GOP Scheme to Cut Social Security Foiled

Deep in the Dark Heart of Texas Representative Sam Johnson (R-TX3) had a great idea to find some offset money for the government to use for highway construction – or as the Congressman was pleased to say “fight crime and save taxpayer dollars.” [Johnson]  The idea is to cut Social Security benefits from those who have outstanding warrants for felonies, and superficially this might sound like a good idea. It isn’t a good idea and it was quashed when Senate Democrats put a spotlight on the notion and threatened to pull support from the Federal highway bill. [HuffPo]

Now why would someone go and crunch this crime fighting taxpayer dollar saving idea?

#1. It’s not like we’re paying benefits to Jack the Ripper: “Large numbers of those who will lose benefits had warrants routinely issued when they were unable to pay a fine or court fee or probation supervision fee. Eliminating what may be their only source of income does not help resolve these issues.”

And: “Many people never know that a warrant has been issued for them as warrants are often not served on the individual.”

And: “These warrants are often not easily resolved since many of those who lose benefits live far from the issuing jurisdiction.”  [JIA]

The aforementioned problems mean that the stage is set for the withdrawal of benefits from some elderly or disabled person who was in poverty in the first place (witness the unpaid fees or fines), who may not even know there is an outstanding warrant, and may not be able to resolve the warrant because it could have been issued years ago and miles away.

#2. The Social Security Administration’s gotten itself in trouble with the complexities of this situations before.  See: Martinez v. Astrue and Clark v. Astrue. [Proskauer]

The order is the culmination of more than five years of litigation in Clark v. Astrue – Docket No. 06-15521 (S.D.N.Y.) – a case brought against the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) challenging its practice of relying exclusively on outstanding probation and parole warrants as sufficient evidence that individuals are in fact violating a condition of probation or parole as a basis for denying them benefits. Rather than check the facts of a case, SSA merely matched warrant databases against its records. When it found a probation or parole warrant in the name of someone who was receiving benefits, SSA checked with law enforcement and, if the law enforcement agency was not actively pursuing the individual, SSA would cut off that individual’s benefits.

In March 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the agency’s practice of relying solely on outstanding probation or parole violation arrest warrants to suspend or deny benefits conflicted with the plain meaning of the Social Security Act. Under Judge Stein’s order, the SSA is enjoined from denying or suspending benefits in this manner and must reinstate all previously suspended benefits retroactive to the date the benefits were suspended. The SSA has until June 12, 2012, to submit a plan setting forth its anticipated time frames for implementing the terms of the order. […]

“The unlawful policy caused widespread suffering while it was in effect. Elaine Clark, one of the lead plaintiffs, had her benefits stopped in the beginning of 2006 because of a warrant from Santa Clara County, CA, where she had been sentenced to probation and ordered to pay restitution as a result of an embezzlement charge. During that time, she was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease on top of other ailments and was no longer able to work. Unable to get a kidney transplant in California, she returned to her hometown of Buffalo, NY, when she learned the waiting time there would be far less. Although she obtained the transplant, she was still in need of extensive medical care and unable to work. Her modest Social Security benefit was barely enough to pay the rent at the long-term care facility and not sufficient to pay the required restitution. Ms. Clark died in 2008 at the age of 65. All the while, law enforcement officials in California knew where she was and knew of her condition, and had no interest in pursuing her.” (emphasis added)

Information from the Social Security Administration concerning the cases and the settlement is as follows:

“If your Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or Special Veterans Benefits (SVB) were suspended due to a felony arrest warrant, the Martinez settlement might offer you relief and reinstatement. On September 24, 2009, the United States District Court in the Northern District of California approved a nationwide class action settlement agreement in the case of Martinez v. Astrue. The Martinez settlement changes the types of felony arrest warrants that we will use to prohibit payment of Social Security, SSI, and Special Veterans benefits. This settlement does not apply to persons whose benefits we denied or stopped because of an arrest warrant due to a parole or probation violation.”

Thus, the SSA is already doing what the CUFF bill specified (proscribing benefits from those with parole and probation violations) and the remainder who would be affected are those individuals who are in that nebulous category of non-payment of fines and fees category.

#3. The amendment implies that Social Security benefits are paid from “taxpayers,” and in a sense they are, those benefits are paid by working people who paid for those benefits in payroll taxes, including those who have those outstanding warrants for non-payment of fines and fees.  Further, the amendment is a vehicle for moving payroll tax dollars out of Social Security and into general appropriations – and here I thought all along that the Republicans were all for “saving” Social Security?   The point was emphasized by an organization formed to protect the Social Security program:

“The National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare hailed the decision to drop the provision. “Dropping the Social Security cuts from the Highway bill is the first encouraging sign we’ve seen from this Congress, when it comes to Social Security & Medicare, this year,” coalition spokeswoman Kim Wright said in an email. “We certainly hope they’ve finally realized using these programs as an ATM for everything else under the sun simple won’t fly with seniors who’ve paid into these programs their entire working lives.” [HuffPo]

It was a bad idea, but it’s not one which may stay out of sight and mind.  The CUFFS bill is part of the old “law and order” stable of increasingly outmoded nags hauled out for a periodic run by Republican jockeys.   It bears watching.

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Filed under Infrastructure, Social Security, Taxation

Infrastructure Spending: Saving Pennies Costs Dollars

Infrastructure Spending

The Hill reported on the appropriations bill for transportation and housing last week:

“The House late Tuesday passed the fifth of a dozen spending bills for fiscal 2016 to fund transportation and housing projects.

Lawmakers approved the $55.3 billion measure by a razor-thin margin, 216-210, after rejecting amendments from Democrats that would have increased funding for Amtrak and the D.C. Metro, as well as doing away with a provision restricting travel to Cuba.

All but three Democrats voted against the bill, while all but 31 Republicans voted in favor. Lawmakers could be seen gazing up at the gallery displaying their votes as the bill appeared close to failing.”

Yet the meager spending for infrastructure needs was entirely too much for Heritage Action, the ultra-conservative lobby arm of the Heritage Foundation.  True to its corporate oriented interests, if anyone in the gallery was representing Heritage Action, they were looking for: the closing of the Federal Transit Administration; the elimination of all operating and debt service grants to Amtrak; the elimination of the Maritime Administration; the privatization of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation; the elimination of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program; eliminating the Essential Air Service Program; privatizing the FAA; shuttering the Appalachian Regional Commission; and eliminating subsidies for the D.C. Metro.  Heritage Action must be smiling at Representative Mo Brooks:

“Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) offered two amendments to slash Amtrak funding further. His first proposal, rejected 143-283 with 99 Republicans in opposition, would eliminate all $288.5 million for Amtrak operating grants. The other amendment, defeated 139-286, would strike the entire $850 million allocation for Amtrak capital and debt service grants.” [TheHill]

At least someone recognized that approximately 840,000 people commute to work on rail lines every work day. [Cap] Nevada Representatives Heck, Hardy, and Amodei voted in favor of the funding bill.  [HR 2577 rc 329]  Representative Titus voted against this measure to further diminish investment in our national infrastructure.

Pie in the Sky Meets Rubber on the Road

Perhaps there’s something about buzz words (Freedom and Free Market for example) which tend to obscure the obvious – that the failure to invest – as a nation – in our infrastructure has a negative effect on our economy.

Let’s stay with the rail line topic for a moment. The need is readily apparent in the Northeast Corridor,  which is:

“The most heavily traveled portion of the national passenger rail system is the Northeast Corridor, or NEC, which stretches from Washington, D.C., to Boston, Massachusetts. The Northeast mega-region is home to one in every seven Americans, or more than 50 million people. All told, the region accounts for $1 out of every $5 of economic productivity.” [Cap] (emphasis added)

One region accounts for 20% of our total economic productivity.  So, how do people get to work (to be productive) in this region?

“As highway congestion within the region has grown, so has Amtrak’s role as an efficient alternative to driving. In 2001, Amtrak provided 37 percent of combined air and passenger rail trips between Washington, D.C., and New York City. By 2011, its share of combined service had risen to 75 percent. The mode share growth for the segment from New York to Boston is also impressive. In 2001, Amtrak provided just 20 percent of combined rail and air trips. This share grew to 54 percent by 2011.” [Cap]

And, it’s not just congestion on the highways that is a problem, airlines are experiencing it as well.  The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported on May 14, 2015 that:

“Load factor in February (84.2) was higher than in any month since the peaks in January and February 2014. The February 2015 load factor was the third highest all-time, just below the first two months of 2014 (Table 2). Load factors have generally increased since the recession because passenger travel has increased at a faster pace than capacity. In February, RPMs (revenue per mile) were at the second highest level, down from the all-time high set in December but exceeding January, the third highest month. The last 10 months, starting with May 2014 through February 2015 are the 10 all-time highest months for RPMs (Table 4).

“Capacity declined in February from December, the highest all-time level, and from January, the eighth highest month, revised from last month’s Air Traffic press release. November, December and January are the only post-recession months among the top 10 for capacity, showing that after six years, capacity has returned to pre-recession levels (Table 6). Systemwide enplanements in February were the highest since the recession. February international enplanements were the fifth highest all-time. Domestic enplanements have been rising slowly but remain below pre-recession levels. Domestic enplanements in February were at the highest level since March 2008 (Tables 8, 10, 12).” [BTS]

Translation: Loads are up, capacity is down, and we’re all trying to fly at rates not seen since the Recession of 2007-2008.   There’s always the family wagon?  In 1980 we had 9,215 miles of interstate highways, and another 6,774 miles of “other freeways and expressways,” by 2013 these numbers grew to 17,866 interstate miles and another 11,602 in the “other” category [FHWA] And we can jam them up on any given rush hour and holiday weekend. These numbers actually don’t mean all that much until we take into account our attempts to maintain this system with a Highway Trust Fund which has a closing balance down 17.8% from last year. [FHWA]

It’s all well and good to offer Pie In The Sky privatization schemes and other “market driven” fantasies, however what our economy needs is a nationwide transportation system which gets people to work and products to market.

“Highway bottlenecks affecting freight are a problem today because they delay large numbers of truck freight shipments. They will become increasingly problematic in the future as the U.S. economy grows and generates more demand for truck freight shipments. If the U.S. economy grows at a conservative annual rate of 2.5 to 3 percent over the next 20 years, domestic freight tonnage will almost double and the volume of freight moving through the largest international gateways may triple or quadruple.” [FHWA]

The following map from FHWA shows where these bottlenecks are at present, not that we couldn’t guess:

Highway bottlenecks Every time a freight load is delayed in these interchange bottlenecks it costs money, and there are other kinds of bottlenecks as well. Steep grade bottlenecks costs in 2006 (12% of total truck hours of delay) were  about $32.15 per hour.  Signal bottlenecks can also cost approximately $32.15 per hour.   If we believe in a “market based” economy then perhaps we ought to think of the market inefficiency created by various and sundry bottlenecks which are costing us $32.15 per hour for Nothing.  Now, think of a truck load of goods experiencing an interchange bottleneck, a signal bottleneck, and a steep grade bottleneck?

We could be working on these bottlenecks, and on the maintenance of our highway system – but that would cost money, including money from the TIGER grants from the Department of Transportation.  (TIGER = Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) So, what did the House do?

“The overwhelmingly popular TIGER program would shrink from $500 million to $100 million. In addition, the size of grants would be far smaller, within a range of $2-15 million, down from last year’s range of $10-200 million. This year’s T-HUD also reduces the share that the federal government will cover for TIGER projects, from 60 percent to 50 percent, requiring more local or state money to be brought to the table.” [T4Am]

Remember, the idea of a national transportation system in a modern economy is to get goods to a nationwide market.  Across the rails, over the highways, or via air freight, none of which the House of Representatives thought worthy of increased appropriations – in the “interest” of fiscal austerity.  It’s penny wise and pound foolish, as the old saw goes, and worse still it places the seamless transportation of both workers and the products they make increasingly at the mercy of state and local governments which are unable to raise the funds to complete the necessary maintenance and improvement projects.

It’s obvious what outdated and uninspected components can do to a transportation system – train wrecks, highway deaths, delayed freight, air accidents.  It’s not so obvious when the drain is hidden from view – hours wasted in any one of the three types of bottlenecks measured by the Federal Highway Administration, hours and money wasted in unnecessarily long commutes, congestion delays at airports and railway freight terminals … Time is money and we’re wasting both commodities.

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The Wreck of the Penn Central: Conservatives want to replicate another financial debacle?

Rail logos Two days ago Fox News was happily promoting the privatization of Amtrak. [C&L]

“Gasparino went on to promote privatization. He said that the northeast corridor, between Washington and Boston, is a “very profitable service” and “there is no rationale why that service cannot be privatized. …If you put private management in there, it would probably be even more profitable and they could pay for even more upgrades.” “I’m not saying privatize the whole thing, at least not at first,” Gasparino said. But he insisted that privatization would make for “a Jet Blue of rail traffic.”

I admit to having “senior moments,” but I haven’t forgotten the fact that the reason Amtrak was created in 1971 was because of the FAILURE of private corporations to run the railroads.

A Bit of History

Once upon a time there was the Penn Central Transportation Company.

“The Penn Central merger was consummated on February 1, 1968, between the Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central Railroad. At the end of 1968, the New York New Haven & Hartford Railroad was merged into PC by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Financial problems plagued the PC during its first couple years. Even though the merger had been planned for 10 years (on and off) before its inception, many problems faced the combined companies, such as incompatible computer systems and signaling systems.

Penn Central also invested in other companies, such as real estate, pipelines, and other ventures. The idea was to create a conglomerate corporation, with the railroad as one part of it. This diversification program, even 20 years later, is a point of debate over the fall of the PC, as some people say funds that were invested in other companies could have been used to run the railroad.” [PCRRHS]

Take a measure of mergers/acquisitions, add “diversification,” and … the world watched as the newly formed company created “dismal numbers.”  Enter the investment bankers. There were warnings.  One warning came before the big merger, in which it was noted that Penn Central had more than $1 billion in debt which would mature by 1982. When Penn Central finally went into bankruptcy it’s long term indebtedness, including obligations due in one year was an eye-popping $2.6 billion. $1 billion was due in five years; $228 million fell due in 1970; $156 million was due in 1971; $172 million came due in 1972; $270 million due in 1973, with another $160 million due in 1974. [Wreck of PCentral]

How this happened should sound eerily familiar:

“…economist Henry Kaufman says of this period in the late 1960s, “I watched with growing alarm as sources of corporate borrowers – in an effort to circumvent regulatory lending constraints – piled into the commercial market as issuers. The trend continued, and culminated in the collapse of the Penn Central Railroad.” [BuyHold]

And collapse it did, into the largest bankruptcy the nation had experienced up to that point, but not before:

“Penn Central’s subsidiaries were stripped of their treasuries in order to prop up PC’s own earnings. For example, New York Central Transport, a trucking subsidiary, had profits of only $4.2 million and yet paid $14.5 million in dividends to the parent. Despite this kind of maneuvering, the dividend on Penn Central common was slashed from $2.40 to $1.80 in 1969. Chairman Saunders vowed to hike it back up, soon. [It was later learned, however, that insiders at PC were unloading their company stock and bonds while all of this was going on.” [BuyHold]

We had a batch of corporate borrowers trying to get around regulations on lending, combined with a company fiddling the books trying to prop up its earnings reports, and taking on massive amounts of debt.  What could possibly go wrong?   The answer, of course, was “everything.”  June 21, 1970 the company declared bankruptcy.  What of the passengers?

“October, 1970, in an attempt to revive passenger rail service, congress passed the Rail Passenger Service Act. That Act created Amtrak, a private company which, on May 1, 1971 began managing a nation-wide rail system dedicated to passenger service.” [Amtrak]

Where was Wall Street?  Again, Wall Street didn’t appear to be all that helpful, except perhaps to themselves.  Goldman Sachs won “the opportunity” to underwrite Penn Central’s commercial paper in 1968.  We can almost guess what happened next:

“For large fees, Goldman sold the paper to its clients, including big companies such as American Express and Disney, and smaller ones such as Welch’s Foods, the grape-juice maker, and Younkers, a Des Moines retailer. Welch’s and Younkers, particularly, counted on the fact that Goldman told them that the Penn Central paper was safe and could be easily redeemed. Welch’s invested $1 million — some of it payroll cash — and Younkers invested $500,000, both at Goldman’s recommendation.” [TribLive]

After the Penn Central’s bankruptcy filing the SEC conducted an investigation.  This, too, is a bit too common for comfort:

After Penn Central filed for bankruptcy, an SEC investigation discovered that Goldman continued to sell the railroad’s debt to its clients at 100 cents on the dollar — even though, by the end of 1969, the firm knew that Penn Central’s finances were deteriorating rapidly.Not only was Goldman privy to Penn Central’s internal numbers, it also heard repeatedly from the railroad’s executives that it was rapidly running out of cash. [TribLive]

By February 1970 Goldman had about $10 million in Penn Central commercial paper on its books.  On February 5, 1970 Goldman Sachs demanded that the railroad buy back that $10 million inventory at 100 cents on the dollar even though it obviously wasn’t worth that much at that point. Goldman Sachs didn’t tell any of its clients about the offer, nor did it tell the customers that it had already taken care of its own interests before theirs.  Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose? [see also: WaPo 2102]

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see how (1) a boom in commercial paper – indebtedness; combined with (2) underlying debts incurred in operations, mergers, and acquisitions; abetted by (3) investors seeking ways around regulations; and (4) investment banking more interested in self preservation than best business practices combined to create a blockbuster bankruptcy. 

But yet, we have the Cato Institute, the bastion of conservative economic imagination pontificating:

“Budgetarily, Amtrak has become a runaway train, consuming huge subsidies and providing little or no return. Four decades of subsidies to passenger trains that are many times greater than subsidies to airlines and highways have failed to significantly alter American travel habits. Simple justice to Amtrak’s competitors as well as to taxpayers demands an end to those subsidies. The only real solution for Amtrak is privatization.”

The conservatives are missing several points.  The point may not be to “alter” travel habits – but to maintain services which people were already using for their commute to work, especially in the Northeast Corridor.  The rationale for the act included stabilizing services for passengers, the general public, and shippers. [RRA]

Going to Court

Amtrak is a private corporation, albeit one with some very special features.   If we want to get technical about  it, the official name is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation.  In fact, the point was driven home in a legal case two years ago in which the private nature of the NRP Corporation was pivotal:

“A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington today said Congress had improperly delegated to Amtrak, a private corporation, the power to draft performance standards that affected companies whose tracks the passenger carrier uses. Amtrak trains have legal priority over freight.

“Though the federal government’s involvement in Amtrak is considerable, Congress has both designated it a private corporation and instructed that it be managed so as to maximize profit,” U.S. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown said in the ruling.” [Skift]

The case got the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court. [FRAdvisor] Enter the “fish or fowl” phase.  Roger’s decision was “vacated and remanded” on a 9-0 decision.  Could Amtrak “metrics and standards” be set aside because the Congress unconstitutionally delegated power to a private corporation? And the Court said:

“No. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the opinion for the majority. The Court held that, for purposes of determining the validity of the metrics and standards, Amtrak is a governmental entity. The members of Amtrak’s Board of Directors are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and Amtrak is required by statute to pursue broad public objectives. Because of Amtrak’s significant ties to the government, Amtrak is not a private enterprise, and therefore, treating Amtrak as a governmental entity is consistent with the constitutional separation of powers.” [Oyez]

Therefore, what the Cato Institute and its allies are arguing is that the decision in DOT vs. Association of American Railroads (49 USC 24301) should be overturned and the railways should exist without any “regulations” imposed by Amtrak which would be applicable to freight haulers.   Extrapolating the Cato’s position to absurdity, under their reasoning we could revert to the wonderful old days of differing track gauges. 

Riding the Thin Rail

However, perhaps the most crucial point the conservatives are missing isn’t about the legislative and legal nature of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, but why this entity was established in the first place.  Although a person might think we’d have learned something from the financial debacle of 2007-2008, the calls to privatize Amtrak have a remarkably familiar ring.

In a financial atmosphere in which commercial debt is treated as fodder for the creation of derivative financial products, and trading is barely regulated in the face of financialist opposition, and mergers and acquisitions generate incentives for corporate mismanagement, and there isn’t an old school investment bank left on the American landscape because of the casino mentality of Wall Street during the Housing Bubble, are we truly going to believe that privatization is the panacea for all that ails the passenger rail system in the United States?

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It’s A Train Wreck?

Amtrack wreck Reno The cable news networks are off on their usual “Who’s To Blame?” penchant in reporting tragic news, and in the midst of the palaver over the Pennsylvania Amtrack wreck there’s the usual lack of context.

For example, has the media told us there were 220 derailments in 2012, 191 in 2013, and 228 in 2014? [FRA]  Or, when looking at accident or incident causation we have the following information at hand? [FRA]

Cause 2012 2013 2014 2015
Track 112 91 87 101
Human 98 96 132 112
Equipment 39 33 47 44
Signal 12 9 8 6

What is interesting about this abbreviated table is the the track and human failure seems to predominate, while equipment and signal failures account for substantially less than the  first two factors.  (Miscellaneous factors are not included in this summation.)

There’s another way to observe train accidents, by state, and we find the following among the states with the highest number of accidents:

State 2012 2013 2014 2015
California 17 20 13 18
Illinois 24 33 50 38
Minnesota 10 9 4 3
North Dakota 5 4 6 4
Nebraska 13 7 8 11
Ohio 14 10 15 14
Texas 35 22 31 37

*This summary doesn’t include crossing accidents.

The Federal Railroad Administration also keeps records of fatalities and injuries, and this is what garners most attention from the news media. Again, we can look at the record over the last four years, noting that those numbers for 2015 are preliminary.

Fatalities 2012 2013 2014 2015
California 19 12 18 25
Florida 4 8 7 4
Georgia 6 4 5 3
Louisiana 3 2 1 6
New York 4 7 1 12
N. Carolina 4 8 5 5
Ohio 7 3 5 4
Pennsylvania 3 4 3 3
Massachusetts 3 1 0 0
Texas 11 7 4 18

*PA will add 8, those fatalities in the Amtrak accident near Philadelphia, May, 2015.

What we might expect to find are a higher number of fatalities in the Northeast Corridor, where ridership includes commuting,  but the reports indicate higher numbers generally in California and Texas.  If the accident numbers (in terms of passenger travel) appear to be increasing, so is the ridership, as shown from BTS (interactive) figures from 2000 to 2015.  The light blue line doesn’t include seasonal adjustment.

Rail passenger miles

The general trend shown by the unadjusted and adjusted numbers indicates more people using rail transportation since 2000. In calendar year 2006 the FRA reported 602,280,892 passengers transported; the number of passengers transported as of the end of calendar year 2014 was 694,507,965.

FRA regions map And, where is the ridership?  Where we would expect it.  Region 1 reported 369,467,363 transported, Region 2 reported another  83,444,579.  Region 7 reported 99,512,195; Region 6 reported 56,260,844.  Region 4 reported 41,748,653. Region 5 reported 32,943,327.  Region 3 reported 5,938, 814; and, Region 8 reported the lowest passenger traffic at 5,149,686.

What Use Can We Make Of The Numbers?

First, if we take a look at the ridership numbers (which don’t include local transit services) and the reported fatalities,  it’s reasonably clear that passenger travel is remarkably safe. Certainly safer than travel by private automobile.

Secondly, we can question the popular opinion offered to explain the political inaction on public transportation funding – like for Amtrack – that low funding is because most of the country isn’t using passenger rail service.  Granted that Regions One and Two (Northeast Corridor) are reporting the highest usage, but quite obviously Region Seven (California) and Region Four (the upper Mid West) are contributing significant ridership numbers.  The assertion that low ridership may equate to low support could only true for the Southeast and the Northwest.

Third, if we look at accident causation, it’s worth repeating that track issues and human error are the most common.  Therefore, while it’s useful to speak of new and better gadgets for passenger train safety – and we should be applying the best technology we can devise for passenger safety – it’s also true that suggestions like putting a second person in the cab, or promoting better track maintenance should be part of the larger conversation.

Fourth, if we focus down on the human error factor, we should note the 2006 FRA study of the fatigue factor:

“As part of the study, researchers analyzed the 30-day work-schedule histories of locomotive crews preceding approximately 1,400 train accidents and found a strong statistical correlation between the crew’s estimated level of alertness and the likelihood that they would be involved in an accident caused by human factors, FRA said.”

We can delve into the details to substantiate this conclusion:

The risk of human factors accidents was elevated at any effectiveness score below 90 and increased progressively with reduced effectiveness. At an effectiveness score ≤ 50, human factors accidents were 65 percent more likely than chance. Human factors accident risk increases reliably when effectiveness goes below 70, a value that is the rough equivalent of a 0.08 blood alcohol level or being awake for 21 hour following an 8-hour sleep period the previous night. Below an effectiveness score of 70, accident cause codes indicated the kinds of operator errors consistent with fatigue, confirming that the relationship between accident risk and effectiveness was meaningful. [FRA]

If preventing the next accident is our major concern then addressing the fatigue factor is crucial, and yet we have a situation in which railroad employees and management are at odds over the safety rules. For example, SEPTA (the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) wanted to relax fatigue abatement rules in 2014:

“Regional Rail engineers have asked federal regulators to require SEPTA to follow a safety rule designed to limit fatigue. SEPTA wants the Federal Railroad Administration to renew a waiver that the transit agency has had from the work rule for two years. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen asked the federal agency to deny SEPTA’s request and hold a public hearing on the issue, citing accidents at other railroads caused by fatigued engineers.” [Phl.com]

And the reason for the waiver request?  That can be safely predicted:

“SEPTA said the waiver was “in the best interests of the riding public from both a service (more employees available for duty to address service demands) and economic standpoint (reduced labor costs by eliminating a potential need to hire additional employees).”

“Maintaining tight controls on labor expenses and operating expenses is one way SEPTA manages to fulfill that obligation [to operate efficiently],” SEPTA said in its request for the waiver extension.

“SEPTA estimates one additional crew costs approximately $150,000 annually, so even one new employee could cost SEPTA hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor expenses in a relatively short period of time.”[Phl.com]

In short, to address demands for service it was deemed better (from an economic standpoint) to have fewer workers working longer hours, in spite of the FRA report eight years before demonstrating the decline in the probability of passenger safety.  Is the “mission” of SEPTA to function “efficiently” or “safely?”

Fifth, returning to the gadget fixation there’s an abiding American proclivity to believe that we can apply tools to fix human problems.  It’s one of our basic strengths – we have a problem, we invent a tool to mitigate or solve it.  The news media has been abuzz about the Positive Control Train System, but while we have this tool in the box it’s not been applied universally.  The recent wreck provides a case to the point:

“In 2008, Congress ordered the installation of what are known as positive train control systems, which can detect an out-of-control, speeding train and automatically slow it down. But because lawmakers failed to provide the railroads access to the wireless frequencies required to make the system work, Amtrak was forced to negotiate for airwaves owned by private companies that are often used in mobile broadband.

Officials said Amtrak had made installation of the congressionally mandated safety system a priority and was ahead of most other railroads around the country. But the railroad struggled for four years to buy the rights to airwaves in the Northeast Corridor that would have allowed them to turn the system on.” [NYT]

This junction of private vs. public concerns was literally a wreck waiting to happen? Could Congress have made the wireless frequencies immediately available to the railroads? Probably yes. Would they buck the powerful lobbying interests of the mobile broadband providers? It doesn’t look as if they did.

Sixth, in the interests of not perpetually “fighting the last war,” or focusing too narrowly on factors associated with one instance of a rail system problem, we need to be cognizant of the other common factor in derailments and related accidents – the track inspections.  Perhaps it’s time for a report along the lines of the Deep Dive study conducted on the Metro North system, which called for Metro North to “create a plan for the use of advanced (track) inspection technology, ensure track is maintained to Metro North Track Standards, collaborate with labor unions to increase the availability of off hours maintenance time, improve training programs for track inspection and maintenance, and to analyze train schedules to determine whether there is sufficient time for inspection and maintenance of track.”

It’s not reassuring to find out that Minnesota has only one track inspector for its 4,500 mile of track. [MST]  Pennsylvania has 5,600 miles of track and “There are currently six PUC railroad inspectors who each focus on a specific discipline (track, operating practices, hazardous materials, grade crossing and motive power and equipment). PUC inspectors work in close coordination with FRA inspectors to ensure safe train movements throughout the entire state.” [PPUC]  Please tell me there are more than 6 people working on inspections!  The recent controversy over the Oil Trains moved New York to conduct an examination:

“Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced completion of the latest round of targeted crude oil tank car and rail inspections, which uncovered 100 defects, including eight critical safety defects that require immediate action. The inspections were the latest part of the Governor’s push to protect New Yorkers from the potential dangers associated with the transport of crude oil by freight rail companies. State and federal teams examined 704 crude oil tank cars and approximately 95 miles of track in these inspections.”  [Gov.NY]

Perhaps the Amtrack accident might move the states to engage in comprehensive reviews of track safety?

Finally, we need to address some philosophical and political problems.  What is the “mission” of our transportation system, especially with regard to our railroads?  As usual, there are more questions than answers.

Is the mission, to replicate the focus as illustrated by SEPTA  on “management efficiency,” or is the mission to provide safe, reliable, and modernized transportation for passengers and freight?  Have we down-sized employment levels of engineers and track inspectors to a point where we are being penny wise and pound foolish?  Are we requiring adherence to the best safety standards or simply accepting what is “economical” at the moment?

Have we placed impediments to modernization such as the implementation of Positive Control systems? Have we also jeopardized other safety considerations and systems by emphasizing privatization at the expense of public safety and the economic benefits of infrastructure improvement?

Are we perceiving our transportation system and infrastructure as essential to the economic well being and growth, or are we limiting our vision to the quotidian arguments between labor and management?

The national conversation about railway infrastructure and its management needs to be far broader than the current fixation on how to prevent wrecks.  That train left the station long ago.

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