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To Decarbonize Transportation, MnDOT Needs To Challenge Itself To Reduce VMT

Just this past week, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) released a report entitled “Pathways to Decarbonizing Transportation” that models various ways for the state to achieve its climate goals. These goals were set in the Next Generation Energy Act (NGEA) that was passed in 2007 and signed by Governor Tim Pawlenty (!!!). Minnesota aimed to cut greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 15% in 2015, 30% in 2025, and 80% by 2050. This timeline is both not ambitious enough for the scale of the problem, and also more aggressive than Minnesota has so far been able to achieve.

One significant reason why the state has not had the success that it envisioned is that the transportation sector has not decarbonized as quickly as it needs to. Between 2005 and 2016, transportation emissions in the state fell just 8%, and the largest chunk of that decline was likely caused by the economic collapse that began to manifest in 2007. While some sectors of the economy, especially power generation, have seen tremendous progress in decarbonizing, transportation has lagged.

That’s why MnDOT’s report is well-timed. As millions of people around the world rally for action on climate change, Minnesotans need their DOT to act with renewed urgency to slash carbon emissions in its sector. Unfortunately, while the report was produced by smart people with good tools and it provides some interesting data, it contains a flaw that, if not addressed, virtually guarantees that Minnesota’s overall efforts to decarbonize will continue to fall short of expectations.


MnDOT’s Big Blind Spot

Minnesota’s DOT, like most state DOTs, was originally named the Department of Highways. While the agency’s name and mission have broadened, its work still is mainly focused on building and maintaining high capacity roads for the benefit of cars and trucks. Over the course of its existence, MnDOT has been extremely effective at its job. The state has the fifth most highway miles of any state in the country—an astonishing statistic, given that it ranks 22nd in population and 12th in land area.

But in the age of climate change, this success begins to look more like a failure. Decades of research have demonstrated a clear link between the amount of miles of roadway and the amount of vehicle miles traveled (VMT). In other words, the more roads you build, the more driving—and emissions—you get.

Ghg Emissions

MnDOT’s climate report suffers from an inability to look at this paradigm squarely. To the left, is a graph that from the report that shows how the agency anticipates Minnesota meeting its climate goals. The top edge of the color represents the current path, and the bottom edge represents the path that the state needs to achieve to meet an 80% carbon reduction by 2050 (there are also projections for a 100% reduction). Each color represents a different decarbonization strategy, and their weight represents their share of the overall change.

The three shades of blue represent a shift to electric vehicles in cars, light, and heavy trucks respectively. Just above them is a slim line of red, and that represents a reduction in VMT. To put it simply, MnDOT (much like other DOTs) expects that electric vehicles will save the planet, not significant changes in driving behavior.

This is a convenient conclusion for MnDOT to come to! The widespread adoption of electric vehicles is not something that MnDOT has a lot of control over. There will need to be a roll-out of roadside charging infrastructure, and state policy will have to mandate more fuel efficient cars, support research and development of cleaner fuels, and offer better incentives for electric vehicles, all of which MnDOT can lobby for. But the basic premise of the agency will not need to be rethought, and the agency’s current work can go on unabated.

How does MnDOT come to this conclusion? Page 28 of the report explains where the emphasis on fuels and power, not cultural changes, comes from:

“The biggest surprise from the modeling was that the biggest GHG emissions reductions were from changes to vehicles and fuels and that reducing vehicle miles traveled would a limited direct impact on GHG emissions, especially when more people are traveling in ultra-low emission vehicles.”

That’s absolutely surprising, in part because it’s contrary to research conducted elsewhere. It’s unfortunate that the report does not go into any greater detail about why this is the case. One possible reason is that the anticipated declines in VMT that were input into the model are quite small. The 80% reduction scenario relies upon a 5% decline in light duty VMT and an increase in medium and heavy duty VMT. The 100% reduction scenario relies upon only a 10% decline in light duty VMT and the same increases in medium and heavy duty VMT.

At the same time, these models were baked with 80-100% of the vehicle fleet being electric by 2050. It doesn’t seem especially surprising to me that if your inputs for one decarbonization strategy are extremely conservative, and your inputs for another are extremely aggressive, the latter will seem the more effective strategy.


Reducing VMT Is Far More Important Than MnDOT Suggests

It’s useful to have reports that focus on specific sectors of the economy in order to dive down into deeper detail. But it is essential to occasionally return to the surface for air, to understand the larger context. The MnDOT report’s reliance on electric vehicles to achieve the state’s climate goals is understandable and justifiable. Electric vehicles are an extremely important piece of the fight against climate change. But they only work to solve the issue as a component part of a much larger effort.

Let’s hypothesize that it would be possible, over the course of just the next year, to achieve 100% electric vehicle adoption in the United States. This would be good news for urban air quality, but it would do almost nothing for the planet. That’s because these vehicles still need electricity for power, and the ways that we produce that electricity still emit a great deal of carbon.

It is true that no industry is making progress towards decarbonization as quickly as the electric power industry. The carbon emissions that result from Minnesota’s power consumption have fallen 29% between 2005 and 2016, and the same story is true just about anywhere in the US. At one end, wind and solar energy are increasing their capacity, while at the other end, switches to more efficient systems, like LED lights, have reduced the commercial need for power. It certainly makes sense to hitch the carbon reduction strategies of other industries, like transportation, to the success of the power industry by electrifying everything.

MinnesotaemissionsBut that shift will also massively increase the amount of power needed. The chart on the right shows the breakdown of where Minnesota’s emissions come from. In our hypothetical scenario in which electric vehicles are entirely adopted in just one year, the primary effect would be to take the wedge labeled “surface transportation” and merge it with the wedge labeled “electricity generation.” Congratulations, the transportation wedge is now gone. But now, instead of renewable sources having to provide X million megawatt hours, they have to provide X+Y million megawatt hours. Until that can happen, that’s extra demand that can only be filled by coal and natural gas.

This is why reducing VMT is so critical: it makes that “Y” smaller, and it makes it smaller right now. Every trip that is shifted from an internal combustion vehicle to an electric vehicle creates additional energy demand that still has to be decarbonized at some later place and time in the power sector. Strategies like providing incentives to charge vehicles at night can only manage so much of the increased load. This is putting aside entirely the industrial emissions that come from the manufacture of the new cars, and the emissions produced in extracting the rare metals (like copper and nickel from Northern Minnesota) required for modern batteries and electrical systems.

In contrast, every trip that is shifted from an internal combustion vehicle to a bicycle, for instance, is decarbonized right on the spot. You can hypothesize a future in which 100% of cars are electric and 100% of power generation is carbon-free, and as a result we can all drive as much as we want. But until we get there, there’s going to be a lot of carbon released, and that carbon still counts. A study of this problem in California estimated 100% electric vehicle adoption and 75% renewable power (less ambitious than MnDOT’s projections but still ambitious!) by 2050, and still found that a significant decline in VMT was needed (more ambitious than MnDOT’s projections) was needed to meet the state’s climate goals.

The authors of MnDOT’s report are not unaware of the dynamic of shifting carbon emissions around from sector to sector without eliminating them. The report’s model includes estimates for how quickly the power sector will shift to renewable sources. I’m not clear, however, to what extent the model also projects the way in which electrification in transportation will increase the overall demand for power, making achieving that goal increasingly difficult.

But we can put the exact numbers aside. MnDOT’s projected fuel-focused decarbonization of the state’s transportation system relies upon ambitious progress in two separate sectors of the economy, for which success in one area makes success in the other more challenging. All the while, emissions will continue to be released into the atmosphere. In contrast, strategies that focus on reducing VMT will pay off in immediate and lasting emissions reductions, all the while making the job of decarbonizing those two sectors of the economy easier. There’s no transportation strategy that is more direct in reducing emissions right away than reducing VMT.


Reducing VMT Must Be MnDOT’s Primary Goal

The other major reason why reducing VMT requires far greater attention from MnDOT is that unlike vehicle electrification or alternative fuel development, it is something that is actually largely in the agency’s control. The amount that people drive now and will drive in the future is highly elastic. Reducing the size of roads is one proven strategy for reducing VMT that MnDOT could bake into every road project it undertakes. Instead of letting projected future traffic volumes dictate the size of the road that it is building, MnDOT could shift to the opposite approach; setting an ideal future traffic volume that incorporates some standard decline (20%, for instance) and then designing a road for that volume. MnDOT could also shift to a statewide Fix It First policy, which prioritizes maintenance of existing roads ahead of any new road construction.

MnDOT could also take more deliberate steps to promote alternative modes. Many state highways also double as commercial corridors for Minnesota cities and towns. Instead of blowing up these streets for through-traffic, MnDOT could adopt policy for its engineers that mandates pedestrian priority and explicit design measures like wide sidewalks, frequent crosswalks, and measures to slow vehicle speeds in these ‘Main Street’ areas. MnDOT is also the agency with the necessary power and scope to work to create a state-wide regional rail network, with frequent service between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud, Duluth, Rochester, and Winona/La Crosse.

MnDOT may also have powers that it has yet to ever exercise. In California, the Governor has directed a shift in perspective and money for CalTrans, towards increasing the kind of urban density that reduces the need for driving trips. Density also has a number of other benefits, including increasing the heating and cooling efficiency of buildings and reducing the VMT of not just light duty vehicles, but also medium and heavy duty vehicles delivering goods and services.

Making these changes would require similar leadership from both the top of the agency, Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and Governor Tim Walz. It would require an institutional shift in power, away from the traffic engineers and towards the agency’s planning staff, and shift in where money and time are allocated. A number of existing projects would and should be affected.

But such a change is necessary if the state is truly committed to making progress on reducing carbon emissions. The ambitious goals set for other people by the MnDOT report are laudable, and it would be nice to meet them. But MnDOT cannot be allowed to shirk its own responsibilities to make achieving these goals more possible. The agency can take steps to reduce VMT. It only needs to take it seriously and give it a try.

Alex Schieferdecker

About Alex Schieferdecker

Alex Schieferdecker is from New York City, lived in Minnesota for six years, and now lives in Philadelphia. He is still unhealthily invested in Twin Cities politics and development. Please help. His twitter handle is @alexschief.

42 thoughts on “To Decarbonize Transportation, MnDOT Needs To Challenge Itself To Reduce VMT

  1. Lindsey Aster SilasLindsey Aster Silas

    Yes, thank you. Electric cars won’t save us. We need to reduce lanes and increase the numbers of people walking, biking, and taking transit.

  2. Jeffrey Klein

    This is excellent work and really cuts to the heart of what’s broken about the conversation on how to handle climate change, even among the most progressive circles and even with the most ambitious plans: there’s simply no appetite to stop sprawling, at which point you’re waging an unwinnable war against physics, geometry, and cost.

  3. Jeff L.

    “The state has the fifth most highway miles of any state in the country—an astonishing statistic, given that it ranks 22nd in population and 12th in land area.”

    Astonishing? Really? As someone who has been all around MN and to every single state this is the least surprising thing in this op-ed. Most of the bigger states (by land size) lack usable space. Sure Alaska is amazing, but most of the land isn’t livable. Arizona & New Mexico have those pesky deserts. At the end of the day MN has what many of the bigger states don’t….access to lots of water. People need water, they love to live near it, so not surprisingly with 10k+ lakes and some big rivers lots of small towns sprouted up, and without geographic constraints like mountains many of those towns found ways to connect to other towns. Feel free to indict MNDot on its report, its current work, expansion of freeways, etc… but the size of our road system is in no way shape or form astonishing.

  4. Pine SalicaNicole Salica

    thanks for writing out what i feel, but with more charts and less “you’re not taking this seriously!!!!” grandstanding.

  5. Monte Castleman

    As for the Brainerd project, remember MnDOT didn’t even want to keep that section of Business 371, but agreed to when local agencies agreed too take over several other trunk highways. My recollection is it was Brainerd that insisted on the 5 lane configuration and they could withhold municipal consent from the project if MnDOT didn’t build it that way. If you look at other projects coming up, US 61 in Lake City and US 10 in Wadena are going to be reduced from 4 lanes to 3 lanes.

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

      Glad to hear that other towns have bigger brains than Brainerd.

      MnDOT could very easily take the whims of various towns mostly out of the picture, however, by developing a set of “Main Street” standards and sticking to them. I’d advise that approach.

      1. Monte Castleman

        The problem is that MnDOT can’t just say “we’re building a three lane road whether you like it or not because it fits our ‘Main Street’ standard”. Under the municipal consent law towns can say “oh no you’re not, you build a 5 lane road or you build nothing because we’re worried about traffic impacting our businesses”. So MnDOT either builds it that way or does nothing and the potholes get big enough to swallow cars. Whether you want MnDOT to build more highways like I do or shift their focus like you do, I think we can agree the unique law has both good and bad consequences.

        1. Jeffrey Klein

          Two questions:

          (1) If we have insufficient highways, what is the right amount?

          (2) How does this amount square with the climate change situation?

          And one observation: Brainerd is run by the dumbest people on the planet and the only solution is making it a city street and letting them go bankrupt trying to maintain it.

          1. Monte Castleman

            1) Enough highways that we don’t suffer staggering economic losses due to congestion

            2) Besides electric cars, there’s also work on developing atmospheric sulfur injection and industrial scale carbon capture so we don’t have to be stripped of the freedom that only cars can provide just to deal with climate change.

            As for making it a city street, I don’t disagree with the sentiment but there’s a state law that MnDOT can’t give it someone else without their consent. When MnDOT dumps a highway there’s normally money involved and/or reconstructing it the way the local agency wants first in order for them to take it.

            1. Jeffrey Klein

              No doubt we’ll be the first society to build our way out of congestion with more roads, while at the same time fixing climate change with risky geo- engineering hail Marys, all to avoid the horrors of walkable, human scaled environments that have proven to be effective places for people to live for centuries, and are currently in such demand that people pay top dollar to either buy into them or go visit them.

              Gotta say that’s one helluva plan.

        2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

          Then MnDOT takes their money and goes elsewhere.

          But I doubt it would come to that.

        3. Brian

          If MNDOT decided to simply repave a state highway in the current configuration would it require municipal consent?

          I find it hard to believe if a city didn’t want a state highway reconfigured that MNDOT would simply stop maintaining the existing highway.

          1. Monte Castleman

            No, just repaving the highway would not require municipal consent. But the issue is that as a highway ages the interval between when you need to repave it becomes less and less to the point where it’s cheaper to tear out the highway and start over with a reconstruction, which is what was done in Brained.

          1. Monte Castleman

            Assuming you’re talking about new highways as opposed to new lanes and don’t want complete fantasy, there’s new highways proposed but not built as freeway crossing at Chaska and Clearwater.

    2. Brian

      How could Hwy 10 in Wadena go from four lanes to two lanes since Hwy 10 is only two lanes today? Is parking included in the four lanes?

      1. Monte Castleman

        OK, shows how long it’s been since I’ve been that way (probably close to 20 years). But there was a four lane bypass proposal and a four lane in town proposal that’s not being built. To replace the example, a five lane section of US 53 in International Falls is being replaced with a 3 lane + MUP section.

      2. Andrew Evans

        Brian, that could be a thing of the past.

        HW 10 used to be 2 lanes from just north of Randall to either Motley or Staples up to the late 80’s or early 90’s. In contrast the bypass around Little Falls (with freeway style limited use signs) was there from when I was old enough to remember things in the 80’s. On that note 371 was two lanes up until more recently, and as the comments suggest, went through Brainerd until that time with no good bypass (people went through Randall and up county 1).

        Monte seems to know more about the future plans, since it appears the state has made an effort for HW10 to be 4 lanes to Fargo (I thought it was).

  6. Brian

    I don’t normally attend any legislative hearings, but I would sure as heck attend if any legislator tried to get lanes removed from existing highways. I would also help campaign against any legislator who voted yes on this.

    The Twin Cities would be paralyzed by traffic congestion if lanes were removed from highways. People are going to go to work regardless of how bad congestion is. They don’t have a choice. Transit is only used by a small percentage because it isn’t available to most.

    I would consider transit for everyday errands if it wasn’t going to take five to ten times as long as my car. I’m not going to spend two hours on a bus to buy that last minute box of screws to finish a project when it takes 25 minutes with my car. Transit isn’t available to me anyhow without a three or four hour walk (each way!) anyhow. I could walk to to the nearest store in about two hours each way. (I live in the metro, but my area just has no retail stores.)

      1. Brian

        How does my car or bus sitting in paralyzing congestion help things since I don’t have a reasonable alternative to a car?

        It would cost me $25,000 in moving expenses to move to Minneapolis plus my housing costs would probably double. I would likely go car-lite so the savings on driving wouldn’t pay for the higher housing costs. Besides, my car savings would go to the $90 for a monthly bus pass.

  7. Brian

    How will one million new Twin Cities residents get around with fewer highway lanes, reduced bus service, and LRT service that doesn’t serve most of the metro. (Metro Transit keeps cutting bus service due to reduced ridership and lack of drivers.)

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

      MSP’s growth is a powerful reason for expanding public transit service and cutting back on road construction. That’s because a car takes up a huge amount of space to drive and park, and dense cities simply don’t have that space. Hence, traffic and congestion.

      Building more roads (at tremendous cost) just encourages the problem to get worse, because even if you manage to build one section of road that is so big, it is never congested, it’s eventually going to feed into another road that isn’t big enough.

      Public transit takes up far less space. So the projected growth of the Twin Cities is actually a powerful argument for beefing up investments in public transit. Obviously I don’t want reduced bus service, I’ve written on this site many times about the need for better bus service and more light rail service.

      1. Brian

        The reality is today that Metro Transit is reducing bus service due to both declining ridership and lack of drivers.

        I take route 250 to/from work and it seems like there are more empty seats over the past year or so. Bus ridership on my route tends to hit a seasonal high right after school starts, but the bump seemed to be less this year. Metro Transit was running a lot of 40 foot buses in the afternoon instead of 60 foot buses the second half of the Summer, but I am seeing mostly 60 foot buses again in the afternoon. One afternoon run was cut from 250 in August.

        I never said anything about adding more traffic lanes. What I don’t want to see is the lane reductions advocated for in the article.

        1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

          Metro Transit is explicitly reducing service because of a lack of funding from the legislature. Bus driver shortages are a problem but not a permanent one. Ridership is decreasing on metro bus service and increasing on LRT and BRT service, suggesting that ridership is responsive mainly to this lack of investment.

          1. Brian

            Metro Transit has consistently been blaming lack of drivers, not ridership declines or funding, as the reason for service cutbacks. They are spending a lot of money and resources trying to recruit new drivers. They just put a huge (and probably expensive) banner up at the 95th Ave park and ride advertising for drivers.

            I don’t know why anyone would sign up to drive a bus. The hours suck, the vacation choices for new drivers suck, and you probably have to work a lot of holidays. You also are likely to get the routes with the worst clientele. Sure, it is an okay job if you stay long enough to become full time and get seniority so you can get decent vacation and route choices. Your vacation choice the first year or two would probably be something like October, but not MEA week.

          2. Allen

            Metro Transit is reducing bus service because:

            a) It has less bus riders
            b) Trains take a butt ton of money to operate

            Downtown jobs have not recovered from where they were a century ago.

            Metro Transit’s bus service is often mediocre. For example, they love to force riders to get off the bus and stand around and wait yet again for a train. It helps pad the ridership numbers but is horrible from a mobility and service perspective.

            etc, etc, etc.

            So yes, Metro Transit can be introspective and honest and talk about all the things they can do better. Or they can do what management loves to do, blame everyone else.

            Metro Transit isn’t unique in blaming others for it’s woes. But it doesn’t make it any more acceptable. They need to grow a pair and take responsibility for their own mistakes.

            1. Brian

              Trains cost less to operate than buses so they save money running trains. (Just the operating costs, not capital costs for either buses or trains.)

  8. rohan

    Too many buses are deadheading than most Transit Agencies.Except for landlock Seattle most Angencies have fewer commuter routes than local services and charges zone fares ,we have more commuter routes than local routes.
    Many of these buses are running at less than 40% capacity and are less than 10mins faster than some of the nearby local routes.
    Metro Transit buses are very inefficient with massive deadheading when there are corresponding local routes nearby or overlap on the same street.
    Every year they come crying at the Capitol for more money when many is wasted on P/R and Commuter rail with extremely high subsidy $18 for NS Rail
    A line is slightly faster than the #84,C line is only about 5mins faster than the 19 bus
    The shorten #16 travel time is almost the same as the GL

  9. Lou Miranda

    Bravo, Alex! This is the most important thing about climate change that MNDOT and Governor Walz need to hear right now.

    I went to one of MNDOT’s community meetings in Mpls, and they literally ignored my question about reducing VMT.

  10. Allen

    Between 2005 and 2016, transportation emissions in the state fell just 8%, and the largest chunk of that decline was likely caused by the economic collapse that began to manifest in 2007.

    That’s right. Mr. Schieferdecker wants MNDOT to become an agency of ANTI-mobility based on little more than an amatuer G U E S S.

    Minnesota long ago recovered from that recession. The drop in transportation emissions is because of improvements in technology. Americans drive twice as many miles as 40 years ago yet use only 40% more energy to do it.

    Effeciencies in transportation are the source of huge drops in emissions from transportation.

    For anyone that wants to do something about global warming, stop buying crap from China. China puts out more greenhouse gased than the US, the EU AND India combined!

    1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

      Or, you could look at the data I linked to in that paragraph, which shows that emissions dropped significantly from 2007 to 2010, and have decreased by a much smaller amount since.

    2. Matt SteeleMatt

      Do you not see it as a collosal failure that Americans now have to drive twice as many miles as 40 years ago to remain a part of the economic and social fabric of our communities? Cars are amazing tools – I took a road trip in mine over the weekend – but having to use one every day is the opposite of freedom.

  11. Scott

    This is a fascinating post. Thank you for breaking down a relatively complex issue to be so understandable.

    I don’t understand why it is so threatening to some people to suggest that our society drive a little less. Beyond the terrible consequences of climate change, walking and biking provides health benefits, saves on road maintenance, lessens the cost burden of owning a car, etc.

    P.S. It IS astonishing that MN has the 5th largest highway network in the US. I’m originally from a small town in SW MN, and it is amazing to me that nearly every little town out there, no matter how small, is connected by a state highway.

    1. Brian

      How else would small towns be connected if not by highways? There are towns that are on county highways, not state highways.

      Driving less is one thing. Actually removing highway lanes without some alternative is idiotic. People who don’t have to drive anywhere will avoid rush hour if congestion increases, but many people still have to drive to work since there isn’t a viable alternative for them.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        People don’t like to here it, and it doesn’t work for everyone, but you can move closer to work/stuff and some would of it wasn’t so easy/subsidized to drive long distances.

  12. Steve Gjerdingen

    Does VMT already factor in density? What if we had a metric to look at VMT per resident? I think that would be a much more useful tool as the Twin Cities area continues to grow in population.

      1. Brian

        Has VMT gone down during the morning and afternoon rush hours when most congestion occurs? It doesn’t feel like it. Almost all highway expansion is to handle rush hour traffic.

        It would be nice if employers started to support working from home and work schedules outside of the 7 am to 5 pm time frame. One of the issues with changing work schedules is social and youth sports activities. Most of these types of activities occur between 5 pm and 8 or 9 pm in the evening. If workers are working until 6 pm or 7 pm they miss out on this stuff. Most parents don’t want to miss their kids’ activities.

  13. Ian R BuckModerator  

    Standing ovation! Encore!

    Something you touched on in the article, but deserves more attention, is the fact that for internal combustion vehicles, almost half of their emissions happen during the manufacturing process. So even if we completely switch to electric vehicles, and they are powered by 100% renewable energy, we’re only cutting half the emissions. Reducing VMT is important, but reducing the number of vehicles that people buy (and by extension, how many are manufactured) is even more critical. Now, it is closely linked to reducing VMT, so luckily those goals align nicely.

    1. Andrew Evans

      A few articles here posted some numbers of emissions for production, and lifetime of use. Running those numbers it seems, in terms of total emissions, a smaller ICE car that gets good mileage (in the 30’s to 40’s) may be better lifetime emission wise than buying an electric car and having to replace the battery pack after a given time.

      That’s today’s numbers, and they will get better, but it mostly seems to displace the emissions rather than offset them.

      In other news GE announced an offshore wind turbine that is something like 900 feet tall and 15mw. More advances like that will offset more of electric vehicle emissions and start to tip the scales more on their side.

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