Cline Bus

A Look at Future Rapid Bus Lines

A wave of faster limited stop transit services will arrive in the next few years. The Orange Line BRT (I-35W Minneapolis-Burnsville, replacing Route 535) is fully funded and construction is underway. The B Line (overlaid on Route 21 Selby-Lake), D Line (overlaid on Route 5 Chicago-Fremont), E Line (overlaid on Route 6 Southdale-Hennepin-4th Street SE), and the Gold Line (St. Paul-Woodbury) are all well into the design stage.

The arterial BRTs are targeted at the heaviest local bus routes which are usually slow, with frequent stops. Metro Transit’s strategy for speeding up service and increasing ridership is to overlay a limited stop BRT while retaining the local route at a reduced service level. Most of the riders are concentrated at the stops with significant commercial or institutional development, so that is where the BRT will stop. The local bus route will continue to serve all the stops including those between the BRT stations. The goal is to attract more riders, while not driving away the existing riders. So far that formula has worked for the A Line and the C Line.

Speed is increased by stopping every half mile or so and eliminating on-bus fare collection. Traffic signal priority also helps, although it isn’t usually implemented at cross streets with high traffic volumes. There may be an occasional bus-only lane, but that will remain uncommon.

Here’s my take on the lines currently under development.

Orange Line

Orange Line

The Orange Line will travel I-35W from downtown Minneapolis to Burnsville, making stops about every two miles. It will replace Route 535 from downtown to Bloomington, and may replace Minnesota Valley Transit Route 465 which connects Burnsville and Bloomington to the U of M, and during half of the day, to downtown.

I-35W is a strange transit corridor. It’s the heaviest rush hour express bus corridor in the metro area, with about 10,000 daily passengers.

The off-peak is a different story altogether. Route 465 runs every 30-minutes, Route 535 every 15 minutes to Richfield and every 30 minutes to Bloomington. That’s pretty good service, but the two routes combine for only about 2000 daily rides.

Attracting all-day ridership is a challenge because I-35W mostly avoids major traffic generators. The south Minneapolis and Richfield sections (46th St and 66th St, respectively) are almost 100 percent residential, and pretty low density at that. Bus connections will be made at Lake Street, 46th Street and 66th Street, but there’s little walk-up potential at those stops and no park-ride spaces.

Multi-stop bus services on freeways are always a challenge. Speeds are high on the freeway, especially is there is a center bus lane or HOV lane, which there is on I-35W. Stopping requires either an on-line station or exiting the freeway, which means vacating the center lane. 46th Street has a center online station, as will Lake Street. 66th Street requires exiting, but it’s a diamond interchange and re-entry happens quickly.

The biggest interruption of freeway speed happens between 76th and 82nd Streets. Both the 535 and the Orange Line have to exit and follow local streets for a mile or more. With no way across I-494, the 535 has to jog a half mile west to Penn Avenue, a time-consuming  inconvenience to through riders from Bloomington, but at least it serves bus connections, the Best Buy campus, a major park-ride behind Best Buy, some apartment complexes and the Southtown retail area. The Orange Line will serve the same area faster via a new Knox Avenue shortcut under I-494.

Although it’s not in the plan, there should be an online station at 98th Street. There’s a transit center, park-ride lot and a healthy retail concentration. Not much residential. Getting on and off the freeway is an awkward, lengthy process in the southbound direction, not so bad northbound.

One of the challenges at 98th is to provide good connections to Normandale College. Route 535 currently ends there, providing a one-seat ride. Adding a transfer is usually a recipe for killing ridership, so that’s a concern.

At Burnsville the puzzling decision was made not to terminate at the big Burnsville Transit Center, but across Highway 13 amid retail and residential. I think it should do both, even though that involves extra messing around. Rush hour park-riders need a midday return route, unless MVTA keeps running the 465. That will be more service than the market will support, so I expect the Burnsville terminus to change.

In summary, all-day transit on I-35W always seems like the obvious thing to do, but the reality is that it’s still a modest transit market.

Gold Line

Gold Line

The St. Paul side of the metro area is always complaining that Minneapolis gets all the new transit services. They’re right, because Minneapolis is a much better transit market. Ever since the county rail authorities decided to no longer pool their resources, the east metro counties can spend the money on themselves and that has given rise to projects with popular appeal and dubious ridership potential. I refer to the Rush Line (White Bear Lake-St. Paul) and the Gold Line (Woodbury-St. Paul).

The Gold Line will mostly follow the north side of I-94, and much of that distance will be on a new bus-only roadway. That will make it the most expensive BRT to date.

Ridership will be modest at best. Because of the freeway on its south flank, walkup from that direction will be nil. There is some residential and commercial density on the north side of I-94, and that offers the greatest ridership potential.

Most BRT’s are being placed where conventional bus service has demonstrated there is ridership. That is true of the Gold Line only within St. Paul. The Maplewood, Landfall and west Oakdale segments have only hourly suburban crosstown Route 219 at present with a handful of daily boardings, although the Landfall trailer park holds untapped ridership potential. The east Oakdale and Woodbury segments have never had off-peak fixed route service. They are also the very prototype of a sprawl landscape. The Gold Line will finally provide a midday return trip for Route 353 and 355 park-ride express riders, but it’s hard to imagine much walk-up business.

Although it can be fixed, to date the Gold Line plan completely ignores the existing Sunray Transit Center, which it misses by a city block. Currently served by Routes 63, 70, 74, 80 and 219, it’s the timed transfer hub of the east side and sees 800 boardings per day. In order to connect conveniently with the Gold Line, the transit center should be moved a block to the south, but that’s not currently in the plans.

B Line (Selby-Lake)

B Line Map809

The B Line would be overlaid on Route 21, which would continue to provide less frequent local service. The 21 has always had two distinct halves, within Minneapolis and within St. Paul. Because of the difference in demand, the Minneapolis side has twice the frequency of the St. Paul side, and that must be taken into account when designing the BRT.

Anyone who’s ever ridden the Route 21 Selby-Lake across Lake Street knows that it’s very well patronized and also very slow. It stops almost every block and hits lots of red lights because there are a lot of red lights to hit. Traffic congestion is bad, especially during rush hours, and that contributes to both slower buses and bus bunching.

Metro Transit runs a limited stop rush hour service, Route 53 on Lake Street. Designed primarily for commuters to downtown St. Paul, it also carries local passengers and stops only at transfer points along Lake Street. From Hiawatha to Uptown Station it’s only 4 minutes faster than the 21. Even with off-board fare collection and traffic signal priority, plus probably skipping the jog to the Chicago-Lake Transit Center, I doubt that travel time savings will improve much because of heavy traffic.

Because the BRT will be extended around the north shore of Bde Maka Ska to connect with the Green Line, it will bypass the Uptown Station. I suspect Route 21 will continue to terminate at Uptown.

This is the one BRT corridor where there’s a better (make that much better) alternative, a rail line in the Midtown Greenway. I sat on the Citizens Advisory Committee when rail was studied. The trip from Hennepin to Hiawatha by rail would take 10 minutes, compared to 29 by Route 21 and maybe 20 by BRT. Because of its faster speed, the rail line would require fewer vehicles to run the same service. It would also stimulate redevelopment along the corridor, something no bus service is able to do. In the Greenway there is no traffic congestion to cause delays and the ride would be much more comfortable without the constant changes start and stop of navigating traffic. As the Green Line has shown, rail will attract choice riders who will never set foot on a Lake Street bus. There’s also the byproduct of increased security for Greenway cyclists and pedestrians because a train would pass every 5 minutes, increased lighting, and folks waiting at stations will provide more “eyes on the street”.

My personal feeling is the BRT should be treated as a temporary stop-gap until rail can be built.

It is unclear if the B Line will be extended to downtown St. Paul. If it does, it will bypass the Route 21 jog up to University Avenue. The jog currently serves some 1000 daily riders (15% of the 21’s total). It provides access to a major retail concentration and makes possible transfers to and from the Green Line. However, the Metro Transit table below shows there are even more through riders for whom the jog is an irritation. Keeping the Midway jog on Route 21 while the B Line bypasses it would make everyone happy.

Rt 21 Od810

This chart shows where Route 21 riders start and end their trips.

If lack of funds prevents the extension to downtown St. Paul, the B Line could terminate at Snelling and University and transfer its downtown passengers to the Green Line.

D Line Chicago-Fremont

00 05 87972 19 D Line Map 1
Route 5 is the busiest bus line in the Twin Cities and a good candidate for BRT. It’s also quite long, stretching from Brooklyn Center to the Mall of America, and fewer stops over a longer distance will yield some real travel time savings.

The D Line BRT will stretch from MOA to Brooklyn Center Transit Center. The unanswered question is where the remaining (but less frequent) Route 5 local service will start and end. There’s a good case to be made for ending it at 56th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis. In north Minneapolis it’s probable that Route 5 may not reach north of 44th Avenue. Brooklyn Center Transit Center doesn’t have room for both the D and C Lines plus their local services (Routes 5 and 19). There’s an argument to be made for combining Routes 5 and 19 into a single big loop within north Minneapolis via Penn, 44th Avenue and Fremont. It would save money and double as a circulator within the North Side.

E Line Dinkytown-Hennepin Avenue-Southdale

E Line Map808

The challenge with overlaying a BRT on top of Route 6 is that it divides into two branches from Bde Maka Ska to Southdale. Half the buses take Xerxes Avenue and half take France Avenue. The E Line is proposed to cover some of each, with the idea of hitting all the biggest traffic generators– the business districts at 43rd & Upton, 44th & France and 50th & France, Southwest High School plus Fairview Southdale Hospital and its attendant medical buildings. As such it’s not the fastest route from Southdale to downtown. It takes a few more minutes via France compared to Xerxes.

As for how much local service will remain once the E Line opens in about 2023, it looks like the Route 6E Xerxes will survive. That’s downtown to Southdale via Xerxes and beyond to Minnesota Drive, just north of I-494. Less obvious is whether there will be a France Avenue local. Is there is, it will probably stay on France to Excelsior Boulevard and terminate at the Green Line West Lake Station. Even with a transfer to LRT,  the trip to downtown would be about 10 minutes faster than it is today. It would also open up connections to the western suburbs that either don’t exist or are currently roundabout via Uptown Station. It’s hard to imagine such a route extending farther south than 50th and France, although it might take over the west end of Route 46 that extends west on 50th beyond Highway 100.

Service to southeast Minneapolis, specifically Dinkytown, is still somewhat unclear. Half of the riders between downtown and Dinkytown stay within southeast. Route 6 currently ends at 27th & University SE. Some have proposed extending it to the Westgate Green Line station, just across the St. Paul city limits. There it would connect end to end with Route 63 Grand Avenue and Route 30 from Lauderdale. Prospect Park residents have long requested a one-seat to Dinkytown. It has been tried before and failed for lack of ridership, but recent apartment development near the Prospect Park Station and Westgate Station may spell success this time.


Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.

20 thoughts on “A Look at Future Rapid Bus Lines

  1. Monte Castleman

    I do question how the Orange Line is going to work out in Bloomington. Not so much Normandale -maybe things have changed but in my time at Normandale virtually no one rode the bus, to the point they just attached a parking fee to everyone’s tuition and no one complained about it. But it makes it a lot harder to get to the bus for a lot of residents even if the ride will be faster once you get to the bus. Right now I can literally see the 535 stop two houses dow so if I had to work downtown I’d at least consider it. But it’s over mile from my house to the Orange Line stop. No way am I walking a mile to a bus and if I have to get into my car to drive to the station why not just head downtown? Also the 535 has service to the industrial and commercial areas off Lyndale and around city hall.

    The 98th Street overpass will require replacement in about 20 years. The station area plan mentions the idea of looking at future interchange configurations to make it easier for bicycles and pedestrians to cross while still handling the enormous amount of motor vehicle traffic and the desirability of eventually building an online station in the center at 98th.

  2. Matt Wells

    Very insightful. I would posit that St Paul has a fabulous candidate for BRT in West 7th Street, but the institutional resistance of property owners (specifically restaurant owners) has blocked everything.

  3. Karen Nelson

    Don’t agree with this:

    ” It [rail] would also stimulate redevelopment along the corridor, something no bus service is able to do. ”

    A Line aBRT is definitely attracting transit oriented development, and I think as aBRT becomes more popular and know in city and keeps increasing ridership, developers will catch on even more. The permanent station locations are firm enough for long-term developer confidence.

  4. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    Great post. Some scattered thoughts:

    The real success of these highway BRT routes will come from the urban stations, which have the lowest floor and highest ceiling. The actual transit product at the Lake Street Station or 46th Street Station, for instance, is going to be phenomenal. A bus, whether the Orange Line or another route, is going to be arriving there almost every minute at peak hours, and pretty frequently off peak. All are going downtown. That’s almost speed and frequency at the level of an Elon Musk fever dream.

    But I think Metro Transit has some issues to sort out, especially regarding fares. Fares need to be paid off-board there, and need to all cost the same at least to downtown, so that you can take the very first bus that arrives and really get the most out of that frequency. Figuring out fares southbound might be thornier, but I hope the agency aims for the maximum consistency and simplicity for the rider.

    There’s huge development potential at the Lake Street Station especially. The 2040 Plan allows buildings 15 stories tall west of the station (oddly only six stories tall to the east, that’s strange to me). Just two blocks west is Nicollet, which is a no-brainer for aBRT someday, and two blocks north is the Greenway trench, which is a no-brainer for rail someday.

    Creating a dense, transit-oriented site plan that on these critical four blocks is a major challenge that the city can’t get wrong (happily it owns the K-Mart). In the future, there might be three separate stations at three different levels (rail below, aBRT at grade, and hBRT on the viaduct) that will need to be connected for riders in a way that makes transfers between these services as easy as possible. What an incredible and potentially rewarding challenge!

    The Gold Line could be a real disaster with that price tag, but it also serves some populations in East St. Paul and suburbs further on like Landfall, where there is incredible transit dependency and poor to mediocre actual service. The biggest challenge there is bridging the highway in a way that makes the Gold Line still accessible to the few (but important) neighborhoods located south of the highway. Getting 3M onboard with some big employee transit incentives would also be extremely helpful.
    I know less about the suburban ends of these projects, but I do know enough about 98th to echo the call for an inline station. Has that section of 35W been reconstructed already? I forget. The transit station there is a nuisance to get into and out of. People deserve better access to the excellent pan-Asian buffet at 98 Pounds.
    The B Line is the best transit project currently going in MSP. I think your fatalism about bus lanes on Lake is not warranted. It is an enormously obvious place to put them, it’s more than wide enough, and I suspect that as the B Line gets closer to getting built, that will become clear to Hennepin County.

    1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

      Two responses:
      1. Rush hour expresses already have the option to stop at 46th Street. Most don’t because it takes an extra minute and the demand isn’t there. I don’t see that changing.

      I don’t see much hope for bus lanes on Lake Street except maybe the one way segment west of Dupont. The. B Line will get stuck in traffic and the traffic will get worse over time. That’s why the Greenway rail line is a much better alternative.

      1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

        I’m all for Midtown Rail. But that shouldn’t preclude bus lanes.

        Just looking for a minute at the numbers, it looks like there are roughly 10k weekday riders boarding on Lake Street, while ADT is 12k-17k on various stretches. Seems fair to assume that somewhere between a quarter of travelers on Lake are taking transit, despite the slow and unreliable speeds.

        Lake Street has two traffic lanes in each direction, even with parking, so there’s the space to take one lane in each direction, and eliminate some parking near corners to provide left turn lanes. Given that transit demand should only increase on Lake, thanks to the West Lake Station and the continued development on the corridor, the case for bus lanes only gets stronger.

        It’s a matter of priorities and not geometry that prevents bus lanes on Lake, and those priorities are shifting.

  5. Karen Nelson

    Really think Met Transit has been squandering real estate around their transit stations, hubs, like your ideas about Lake Street station.

    But also suburban park and rides (and likely future BRT.stations in burbs) are wasteland of mall parking lots around them in which there are few cars parked. Why not build at least some.small biz kiosk, type things that could be rented for peak time use if nothing else.

    Or how about offering low rent to day care center, city services,. or Snap.Fitness or local grocery coop to do to-go cooked food etc.

  6. Andy LewisAndy Lewis

    Regarding continued local service for the 6 post-E line, I saw in one of the Metro Transit presentations that there was a “proposed” Route 36 that would essentially replace the 6B between Southdale and Uptown Station. Any idea if that is still on the table?

    1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

      I think that idea is no longer being considered. The 6 Xerxes local needs to go all the way downtown. There doesn’t appear to be a France Avenue local that will go to Uptown. Maybe things will change, but that’s how I see it today.

  7. Mathews Hollinshead/TAB

    Thank you for referencing the Midtown Greenway “streetcar,” a forgotten part of the deal that got the Midtown Greenway built. Poking over to Uptown from Highland on the 23 is not unpleasant, but I’d rather do A-Blue-Greenway rail even though that’s 2 transfers. Rail would serve all the new Greenway density much better than 21 or B, in my view.

  8. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    Liked this update. Am looking forward to both D and B Lines. I’m wondering if anyone has any information on time estimates for B Line. Specifically, what is the estimated time savings for straightening the route versus what the estimated increase in time might be to the Midway riders who may be having to make transfers to get to Midway. 15% is significant ridership and I would think that number could increase given the plans for Midway in the future. I think about how “Stops for Us” did slow down train, but those stations also proved to be successful (partially through cuts in local bus service, which I think is the reality we’re currently facing). Depending on the numbers, given the likely significance of the Midway in the future, the increased time to jog up to the Midway might be just as successful/worthwhile.

  9. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    It’s a classic transit planning tradeoff. The rule of thumb is no route jogs unless they result in substantial ridership. Well, the Midway jog has substantial ridership. At the same time it probably adds about 5 minutes for through riders and can be slower during the PM rush hour.

    That’s why having the BRT bypass Midway while the remaining Route 21 still goes there would make everyone happy. Forcing Midway riders to transfer will dry up demand.

  10. Karl

    As a current 21/53 rider, I really really want the B Line to be successful but I’m not wild about the currently slated 20 stops between W Lake Station & Snelling, 12 of which are less than 0.5 miles from other stops. I’d trim 7 of them.

    Current 21 station list with walking distances from prior station (West to East):

    W Lake
    W BMS 0.3 miles
    E BMS 0.6 of water
    Henn 0.3; 1.3 from West Lake
    Lyn 0.5
    Nic 0.5
    35W 0.2
    4/5 0.2
    Chi 0.4; .7 from 35w
    Bloo 0.5
    Ced 0.2; .8 from Chi
    Mid 0.4; .7 from Bloo
    Minn 0.2
    31st 0.3; .6 from mid
    36th 0.3; .9 from midtown
    44th 0.5; .8 from 31st
    Otis 0.6
    Cret 0.3
    Cle 0.3; 0.5 from Otis
    Fair 0.5; 0.7 from Cret
    Snell 0.5

    14 station list if you trim W BMS, E BMS, Nic, 4/5, Cedar, Minnehaha, Cretin:

    W Lake Green Line
    Henn 1.3 (E/6)
    Lyn 0.5 (4)
    35W 0.7 (Orange)
    Chi 0.7 (D Line)
    Bloo 0.5 (Potential C Line?)
    Mid 0.7 (Blue)
    31st 0.6
    36th 0.3
    44th 0.5
    Otis 0.6
    Cle 0.5
    Fair 0.5
    Snell 0.5 (A Line)

  11. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I am surprised to hear the southern end of the 5 (post-D Line) is unknown.

    In the process of doing the station locations for the D Line, Richfield had agreed to cede 5 service south of 66th in exchange for Metro Transit keeping to the original plan of doing a stop at both 70th and 73rd. (For a while, they were proposing to maintain partial 5 service all the way to MOA, but not have a D Line stop at 70th)

    This seemed win-win, since I think 5 frequency would be poor after the D Line goes in, but a stop only at 66th and 73rd was pretty spaced out for D Line. I believe they also added an additional American Blvd stop in Bloomington accommodate eliminating the 5.

    However — the understanding was that the 5 would terminate at 66th. This seems like a much better terminus than 56th, since it connects to major east-west service. I hope that they will indeed run it to 66th.

  12. Dennis

    All these projects will cost over a $1billion which not attract enough riders to justify the cost.
    Midtown Greenway will save signicant amount of time over B -line.Keep buses on. Selby but run 16 as circulator Univ and Selby between Hamline and Western.Rt 16 buses are mostly empty.
    C-line should be extended to MOA because the C/D will be duplicated on Osseo Road
    Rt535 weekend services was eliminated because of low ridership
    Gold Line will be a disaster due low density.

    The billions would have been better spend on a LRT to Burnsville on ROW.I got back Ottawa they have 2 lines build that ROW some stations have very low density but attract lot more riders than the Greenline. comparable to Metro .A ride is $3.50 CD

    Red line and NS rail another$1/2 billion wasted .

  13. John Charles Wilson

    Orange Line:

    66th Street won’t be used much without an inline station. At least the Route 515 stops should be moved out from under the bridge (nasty – bird poop!) and moved to the outside of the I-35W ramps for easier transfers unless/until an inline station is built. This means two Route 515 stops in each direction, one before and one after I-35W.

    American Blvd station needs to be in Southtown. The 538 stop by Kohl’s also leave a lot to be desired. A stop by TJ Maxx would be more useful.

    98th Street will suck for southbound riders unless/until an inline station is built. Most importantly, the Normandale connection should go straight down 98th and be timed for class periods.

    Extension to Burnsville Shopping Center would increase ridership.

    If ridership is too low non-rush hours, especially weekends, consider running on Lyndale from Hwy. 62 to downtown.

    Gold Line:

    Best chance for walk-up riders is Earl St., and Hazel St. station should really be at White Bear Ave.

    This route should alleviate overcrowding on the 63, and provide an opportunity to move the 219 north from Landfall – maybe 7th Ave. N. from Hwy. 120 to Hadley.

    Woodbury stops should be closer to retail stores, not just at the P & R.

    All-day service to Woodbury is needed but I would have routed it differently (Warner to 61 to Lower Afton).

    B Line:

    Very much needed but maybe a few too many stops. Agreed it should go downtown via Selby. Agreed Greenway Streetcar also needed.

    D Line:

    Very good. No issues I can think of.

    E Line:

    Also very good. I would support a local line on France to Excelsior Blvd. I am concerned about the Wooddale branch of the 6 being abandoned. While it only gets significant use at rush hour (like the Grand Ave. branch of the 18), it shouldn’t be abandoned completely.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      An inline station at 66th St would certainly be nice for the efficiency of the buses, but I’m not clear why that would increase ridership. The ramp locations, if the shelters are decent, will be quieter than one (in the style of 46th) would be in the freeway.

      I think the bigger issue is that the station is located in a fairly low-density area. Although downtown Richfield is close and there’s a lot of density there, it just feels a little far away (about 1000 feet to Lakeshore Dr, 2200 feet to Lyndale). I am hopeful that people will make the walk, but it does feel a little disconnected.

      I wish the Crosstown Commons project had planned for a BRT station at Nicollet and Crosstown, which would have helped serve the other end of downtown Richfield, as well as the decent-sized node of multi-family and commercial just across the border in Minneapolis.

  14. Daniel ChomaDaniel Choma

    “Keeping the Midway jog on Route 21 while the B Line bypasses it would make everyone happy.”

    I love this. For a non transit planner like myself that is often in conversation with other artists and weirdos about transit, one of the biggest things normal people say about bus transit is “I can’t find the bus stop.” ABRT has a lot greater visibility with its external fare stations. Having a straight line on Selby into DT Saint Paul would be awesome.

    Regarding ridership numbers: I think it’s especially important to remember that Selby from Snelling to Downtown runs through Rondo. Culturally, that’s a holy ghosts and spirits of St Paul road.

    As much as I know holy ghosts, culture, spirits, and ghosts resist a good census and a properly made statistical graph, my heart says it’d be wrong to ignore history, cultural, and the old spirits of Rondo.

    The B line needs to serve DT Saint Paul, if only to rectify some of the transit injustices of old Rondo carries on its spirit to this day.

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