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Update on My Light Rail Bet: The Energy Issue

I generally have a bet I make for new light (and heavy) commuter rail systems.  I bet that for the amount the system cost to build, every single daily rider could have instead been given a Prius to drive for the same money; and, with the operating losses and/or subsidy the system requires each year, every one of those Prius drivers could be given enough gas to make their daily commute.  And still have money left over.  I have tested this bet for the systems in Los Angeles and Albuquerque.

Well, it turns out I left something out.  Many people are interested in commuter rail because it is perceived to be greener, which nowadays generally means narrowly that it uses less energy and thus produces less CO2.  But in fact, it may not.  Blogger John Moore sent me a link to this article by Brad Templeton analyzing energy usage in various transportation modes.  While a full train can be fairly efficient (just as a full SUV could be if 7 passengers were in it), cars and trains and busses are seldom full.  When you look at their average load factors, trains are seldom better than cars:

In fact, a car at its average load factor (1.57 pax) has about the same energy use as busses or light rail per passenger mile.  The analysis is difficult to do well, but even with errors, its clear that rail projects do not dominate over car travel in terms of energy use  (One must be careful to differentiate rail project construction decisions from individual choice of mode decisions -- an individual at the margin shifting from car to train saves a lot of energy;  a city choosing to invest in a large new rail system to entice drivers off the road does not).

In fact, relevent to my bet, Mr. Templeton says this:

My first conclusion is that we would get more efficient by pushing small, fuel efficient vehicles instead of pushing transit, and at a lower cost.

He explains his results, which are counter-intuitive to many

A full bus or trainload of people is more efficient than private cars, sometimes quite a bit more so.   But transit systems never consist of nothing but full vehicles.   They run most of their day with light loads.  The above calculations came from figures citing the average city bus holding 9 passengers, and the average train (light or heavy) holds 22.   If that seems low, remember that every packed train at rush hour tends to mean a near empty train returning down the track.

Transit vehicles also tend to stop and start a lot, which eats a lot of energy, even with regenerative braking.   And most transit vehicles are just plain heavy, and not very aerodynamic. Indeed, you'll see tables in the DoE reports that show that over the past 30 years, private cars have gotten 30% more efficient, while buses have gotten 60% less efficient and trains about 25% worse.   The market and government regulations have driven efforts to make cars more efficient, while transit vehicles have actually worsened.

In order to get people to ride transit, you must offer frequent service, all day long.  They want to know they have the freedom to leave at different times.  But that means emptier vehicles outside of rush hour.   You've all seen those huge empty vehicles go by, you just haven't thought of how anti-green they were.    It would be better if off-hours transit was done by much smaller vehicles, but that implies too much capital cost -- no transit agency will buy enough equipment for peak times and then buy a second set of equipment for light demand periods.

A lot of his data can be checked at the US Department of Energy data book here.  In particular, you can see the key numbers in table 2.12.  After perusing this data for a bit, I had a few other reactions:

  • Commercial air travel gets a bad rap.  On a passenger mile basis, it is really not worse than driving and only about 20% worse than Amtrack  (and probably the same as Amtrak or better if you leave out the Northeast Corridor). (table 2.14)
  • Busses have really gotten way more inefficient over the years, at the same time cars have become substantially more efficient.  While the government criticizes its citizens for not practicing enough energy conservation, in fact its citizens have been buying more and more fuel efficient vehicles while the government has been buying less efficient vehicles.  (table 2.13)
  • While passenger cars have increased substantially in efficiency, over the road trucks have seen no progress, and have actually gotten less efficient over the last 10 years (table 2-18)

Make sure to read the whole article.  I think the author is pretty fair at achnowleging where the uncertainties are in the analysis.  He also has comparisons of mass transit energy numbers between cities.  A few individual cities seem to beat even the most efficient cars -- most, including places like New York, do not.

Postscript:  I don't think numbers for New York include taxis.  If they did, New York would likely look terrible.  From an energy standpoint, taxis are a horrible transportation option, perhaps the worst possible.  It would be interesting to know how many New Yorkers who look down on SUV's routinely get around town using taxis.

Posted on August 4, 2008 at 11:22 AM | Permalink


In the mid 60s a lot of under-used railway lines were closed in Britain; it was said at the time that it would have been cheaper to give every regular passenger a Mini than continue running the trains - and that was a case where the capital cost of the railway had been paid long before.

Posted by: dearieme | Aug 4, 2008 12:09:55 PM

The statistic used for over the road trucks is BTU/vehicle mile. I wonder how much of the apparent increase can be explained by longer trailers (65' and double bottoms v. 50') and less deadheading due to improved logistical planning. I realize it's harder to calculate, but to get a fair comparison with other modes, we should be looking at BTU/ton mile

Posted by: Another guy named Dan | Aug 4, 2008 12:45:24 PM

Disability Act mandates like low floors and wheelchair lifts substantially increase both cost and weight. It is rare that a bus is actually carrying a wheelchair-bound passenger, but the cost must be borne during the 99.9% of the time there isn't such a passenger. Bus agencies resisted these changes for the obvious reasons, many responding to the needs of wheelchair-bound patrons with individualized door-to-door van service. When activists successfully sued to stop such services on the basis that offering clearly superior (to riding a regular bus) service was discriminatory since it didn't offer the same service that able-bodied passengers received, the agencies had no choice to but start buying these heavy, expensive buses.

Posted by: Bob Smith | Aug 4, 2008 12:51:53 PM

Bob. You used the 100 billion dollar word there. "Activist". That's it in a nut shell. 99.999% of mass transit systems are run by Governments. This gives the "activists" control over them through the media and local officials.

Posted by: Jim Collins | Aug 4, 2008 1:25:26 PM

These figures are astounding, especially considering private auto travel will see a major increase in fuel economy in the next few years that other forms of transit will not.

On top of that, the private auto is self sustaining. It does not require massive subsidies to keep it going. The individual owners foot the capital, interst, fuel and maintenance costs, and the road infrastructure is captured from motor fuel taxes. Indeed up to 20% of the "highway trust fund" is diverted to public transportation.

The New York MTA is facing a billion dollar deficit this coming fiscal year, even with back to back fare increase (timid at that). Mayor Bloomberg's answer is of course an $8 per day "congestion fee" for any vehicle entering below 86th Street. The rationale: that this will drive commuters to already crammed full MTA. It won't, he just wants their money.

I have yet to find a municipal transit system anywhere that breaks even. They receive tax breaks private autos don't. They don't pay either federal or state motor fuel tax. They are exempted from tolls generally. Yet they still can't compete.

The real reason there is such congestion in NYC is the massively excessive office and residential density that has been allowed. No city can be functional with density like that.

If I were a New Yorker, I would tell Mayor Bloomberg I will take the MTA to work when he does. Fat chance!

Posted by: Corky Boyd | Aug 4, 2008 1:32:23 PM

I drive for my university's 'mass transit system,' and it is amazing how horrible it is. We have a shift that we run a bus for 3 hours for, maximum, 10 passengers, often only 2 or 3. This is a point I think about frequently because my school is all about being green and helping the environment, but they won't put forth the capital or the effort to create an efficient, useful transportation system!

Posted by: EconStudent | Aug 4, 2008 2:39:06 PM

Corky writes:

The private automobile "doesn't need massive subsidies to keep it going."

Ever taken a look at a federal highway bill, Corky?

Seriously, though, I think the light rail arguments made here are illuminating. What really jumps out at me is the use of the word "substantial" to describe the improvement in automobile fuel efficiency over the last decades. Average fuel economy over the last 30 years is up 30%. Big whoop. If the average computer was only 30% better now than it was in 1978, I wouldn't be typing a message on this blog.

Why is it that fuel economy has moved up so sluggishly? (And most of the fuel economy gained was in the 1978-1985 period, roughly -very little since then). Because drivers demanded more powerful and larger cars. The average horsepower gain over the last 30 years was substantial. For the option of better 0-60 times and 5,000 pound SUVs that housewives drive to the nail salon, we get the predicament we're in now - $4 gas and at the mercy of foreign governments for our energy. Nice job, America.

Posted by: Dan | Aug 4, 2008 2:51:42 PM

Dan: exactly - it's not that automotive technology has failed to improve since then - it's that until a couple of years ago buyers didn't demand better fuel economy as the fruits of that technology (and government regulations didn't change, because there were no votes in mandating higher fuel economy standards and the auto makers could afford better lobbyists/kickbacks/campaign contributions).

Not that I'd have advocated adopting the fuel economy standards anyway; quite apart from any philosophical objection, they've distorted the American auto market in all kinds of stupid ways.

Posted by: Matthew Brown | Aug 4, 2008 5:10:32 PM

The post series are good and thought-provoking at our prejudices for mass transit and against the personal car.

Still, the author misses some points.

Commuter trains can be electrified, which means a good thing, for electricity can come from more various sources than gas, and it pollutes a lot less deal in the commuting zones themselves, which in turn increases overall health, diminishing health care costs, etc.

Corky Boid mentions congestion, and density being the culprit. I think however if more people used mass transit, more efficient would it be, and less congestion we would get.

We also should notice the social importance of mass transit. Without mass transit, people won't "survive" in the cities without a car, and there are plenty of those that, for one reason or another, cannot afford a car in a certain period of time (perhaps he wrecked the car and the insurance doesn't cover it all, and is in debt), so mass transit is the only affordable way of transportation (taxis are not for everyone).

Posted by: Luis Dias | Aug 4, 2008 6:13:42 PM

For two years I lived in New Jersey and worked in NYC, mid town. The distance by road was 23 miles door to door, but I didn't drive. I did the train mostly and I tried the bus, the commute time door to door was 1 hour and 30 minutes, at best. The worst time to get home was during the RNC National Convention and that took 3 hrs. I now live in the Columbus Ohio area and live 22 miles from work. By car it is 35 minutes to work, worst time was 45 minutes during a snow storm.

With driving, I leave when I'm ready. With the train I had hard schedule that I had to keep. Get up in the morning and rush to get ready. In the evening every one knew when their train schedule was and had to leave work on time or miss a train. Missing a train by 5 minute could cost you 30 to 45 minutes on the trip home.

Personal cars equal freedom. I don't care about the efficiency of mass transit over individual car, I want the freedom of the personal vehicle. I don't fly anymore if I can help it. If I drive, I leave when I want, stop when I want, take what I want, I don't have to go through security, I don't get stuffed into a too small of a seat, I don't get stuck on a tarmac, I don't worry about overbooking. Car == freedom.

Posted by: Will H. | Aug 4, 2008 7:29:46 PM

>This gives the "activists" control over them through the media and local officials.

The activists might be tolerable if they weren't certifiably insane. They routinely argue that giving better service to disabled people violates the ADA because it's not the same service. It's not just the bus agencies that get sued, they sued AMC Theaters regarding their wheelchair spaces (which as anybody can see are usually the best seats in the house) for the same reason. Judges that buy these bankrupt arguments should be loudly and publicly ridiculed.

>Ever taken a look at a federal highway bill, Corky?

Ever taken a look at federal gas taxes? A big chunk is siphoned off to subsidize mass transit. If they didn't do that general fund revenues wouldn't be necessary. Besides which, most of these "highway bills" contain spending for junk unrelated to highways.

>Without mass transit, people won't "survive" in the cities without a car

So what. What makes them deserving of welfare?

Posted by: Bob Smith | Aug 4, 2008 7:47:55 PM

Two important points about the data:

1) The energy consumption data only refer to energy consumed during operations. They do not include the eneryg consumed in constructing new rail systems, which is in fact what we are doing at the margins.

2) Isolating individual modes gives a far-too-rosy picture for light rail. Whenever new light rail lines are built, bus routes are eliminated and/or rerouted to serve as feeder services for the new rail line. So not only do light rail lines rob buses of their productivity, they also force them into serving functions where they cannot perform well. This explains at least part of the increase in bus transit fuel consumption over time. There are of course other culprits as well, such as extending service into thin suburban markets.

Posted by: Mike | Aug 4, 2008 7:50:45 PM

OK Bob - if my highway bill argument doesn't win you over (and I suspect nothing will), how about the almost $1 trillion we've spent since 2003 on Iraq? You can't argue that it wasn't about oil and maintaining the "freedom" to drive that another poster here waxed about so eloquently. Not to mention 4,000 American lives and counting. I'd call that a pretty big subsidy to support our car-crazy way of life.

Posted by: Dan | Aug 4, 2008 8:03:53 PM


Regarding the Iraq war you said,

You can't argue that it wasn't about oil and maintaining the "freedom" to drive that another poster here waxed about so eloquently.
Sorry that dog won't hunt and he is never going to hunt no matter how often you flog the issue.

If the war was about oil all Bush would have had to do was agree with the Russians, the Chinese, and the Europeans, and lobby the UN to lift the sanctions on Hussein and allow Iraq to sell their oil on the open market.

Posted by: TJIT | Aug 4, 2008 9:53:42 PM

"Why is it that fuel economy has moved up so sluggishly?"

From the mid-1980s to the early part of this decade, fuel prices were falling in real terms (with the brief exception of the Persian Gulf War period). There were no incentives to conserve an abundant resource.

"Commuter trains can be electrified, which means a good thing..."

Electrification is only a good thing if the fuels used to generate the electricity are cleaner than those they replace. This might be true of Oregon and Washington, which extensively use hydroelectric power, but it is certainly not of states like Wyoming (or New York), which rely heavily on coal as a fuel source. Besides, electrification does not solve the empty backhaul problem or address the low average load factors that characterize public transit systems.

"Without mass transit, people won't 'survive' in the cities without a car..."

The point of Warren's "bet" about light rail systems and Priuses is to point out that producer-side subsidies to public transit operators are extremely wasteful in both fiscal and energy terms. There may be some users of public transit whose incomes, disabilities or other circumstances make them justifiable cases for transfer payments. However, for each of these people, there are two or three that receive the same subsidies with no real defensible justification. The local public transit operator in my region is fond of boasting about how more than 1/3 of its light rail riders have household incomes above $70,000. That is absurd. Converting to a system of user-side subsidies would provide an opportunity to both improve the lot of the truly disadvantaged and lighten the tax burden on the rest of us.

"...how about the almost $1 trillion we have spent in Iraq?...I'd call that a pretty big subsidy to support our car-crazy way of life."

I don't think anyone really knows why we are in Iraq. My claim is that Bush Jr. wanted revenge on Hussein because he blamed him for the assassination attempt on his father in 1994. That said, we could pull out of Iraq tomorrow, but there would still be the matter of a little place called Israel in that region (not to mention Iran).

Secondly, why is this a "subsidy" to our "car-crazy" way of life. If you're suggesting that because the war is not financed with fuel taxes that this constitutes an indirect subsidy to auto users, I would point out that auto ownership is near-universal in this country (90+%). Those who do not have cars probably do not use much gas, but they also do not pay much in income taxes, which are being used to finance this war (and the debt service on the government borrowing it occasions). Finally, Iraqi oil accounts for a very small share (4.5% as of May '08) of oil imports; not enough to justify a massive military campaign. In fact, the Persian Gulf region accounts for less than 1/5 of all oil imports. On the contrary, our largest import volumes still come from Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.

Posted by: Mike | Aug 4, 2008 10:42:49 PM

Now we just need some calculations that bring time into the picture. I use my bike and transit and car to commute to work (been contracting so the location varies). I love the biking but unless it's a couple miles it's tough to pull off because of time & logistics (3 months of the summer for long rides I show up sweaty; places w/ showers are nice but that means driving 3-4 times a month to shuttle clothes and supplies in and out). I live right in the city, a mile out of downtown, so transit is pretty easy to take. But even then a 1/2 trip in my car takes a hour using transit (walk to bus stop, wait, take bus to LRT station, wait, take train, wait to work or wait again for circulator bus).

We see a lot of talk about how much congestion "costs" us. But how much does that extra time taking the bus and/or train cost us?

Mike --> You're spot on. In the US, new LRT lines riders typically 2/3 to 3/4th of them were already taking transit. We're literally spending billions to shift people off of buses on trains. That doesn't seem a prudent way to spend money. And those projects tend not to serve most people's needs. For example, the recent T-Rex project in Denver was about 55/45% spending to build double track LRt versus adding lanes to I-25 on the Southeast Corridor (aka the Tech Center). The freeway portion carries about 425,000 "riders" per day while the LRT portion carries @ 38,000.

Posted by: Allen | Aug 4, 2008 11:04:51 PM

To all Comments!

Hang in there!

The recess that The Queen!(Pelosis) ramED down Congress! will come back to hurt them in November's! election.

Paybacks are HELL!

Just remember the last Congress Election!





HAVE NICE DAY!!!!!!!!!!






Posted by: Leonard Huff III | Aug 5, 2008 12:35:28 AM


Since you believe the current Iraq war is about oil then blame the war on those that stopped the development of domestic oil and energy. Can't drill in ANWR, can't drill off the coast (any one, Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic or Gulf) , can't drill on federal lands, no new nuke plants, no new refineries, no development of tar sands, no no no, just ask the Saudis to pump more, more, more.

4,000 Americans drown each year making 20,000 since 2003
8,600 Americans are poisoned each year making 43,000 since 2003
14,900 Americans die in falls each year making 74,500 since 2003
43,200 Americans die in auto accidents each year making 216,000 since 2003

Around 16,000 Americans are murdered each year.

It may be safer being a soldier in Iraq than a civilian in the US.

BTW our life style isn't crazy, I like our life style, it's normal and the way it should be. If you think that mass transit is the answer try living anywhere but in a big city. Car equals freedom. I like my F150 and even at $4 per gallon I will drive my truck where I want to and when I want to, except when I'm driving my wife's Fusion where we want to go and when we want to go.

Posted by: Will H. | Aug 5, 2008 6:04:28 AM

Less every thinks I only like cars/trucks from my last two posts, my preferred means of commuting to work is by bicycle if there is support for it. In 2000 - 2001 I worked 6.2 miles from home, there was a route to work that was safe, work had a shower and a safe place to lock my bike that had surveillance cameras. I did this for all but 7 days in a year even in 10 Degree weather. But the job went away and so did my easy commute to work, jobs after that made it impossible to bike to work. When I lived in New Jersey and worked in NYC bike was not a solution and living in Manhattan was not a solution either since my wife worked in New Jersey. Although NYC is bicycle friendly the Hudson river gets in the way. NJ Transit will only let you take a bike on the train during non rush hour. The George Washington bridge is a good way but it was too far north and out of the way.

Posted by: Will H. | Aug 5, 2008 6:18:22 AM

Re: Dan

I do not know what you do for a living?

My current income producing lifestyle requires a horse. A big horse that travels lots of miles a year! 30,000 to 50,000 miles a year. This horse does not run on hay! but oil , and lots of its!

Everyone lifestyle is different.

And no, I did not live in a big city with buses, taxis, subways, ect. When my horse get sicks ( blowed engine (three in the last 5 years, tires, ect. ) I used my spare horse for transportation.

Have a nice day!

Posted by: Leonard Huff III | Aug 5, 2008 6:37:32 AM

It's always a hoot to see transit activists count the basic city roadway system as a cost to cars. Here in Connecticut almost all the major roads were present (although not improved) in Colonial times. No house or factory is feasible without a good allweather road. These costs will always be there.

Posted by: David Moelling | Aug 5, 2008 7:40:14 AM

If I were a New Yorker, I would tell Mayor Bloomberg I will take the MTA to work when he does. Fat chance!

Corky, I like you comment and I agree with you. However, Bloomberg is sort of famous for taking the subway to work and for continuing that practice as mayor.

Posted by: Methinks | Aug 5, 2008 9:53:21 AM

People misunderstood my comment. Many things have been said about "freedom" of using a car, and of course, I agree with them! We are not discussing however the availability of cars, for I don't think that even with the current oil crisis we will leave this "freedom" habit of ours. We are discussing mass transit.


"So what. What makes them deserving of welfare?"

I don't really gather you. Are you saying you'd rather have cities without any mass transit at all? We should understand that even people who are earning low wages deserve to at least get some kind of transport to their working place. Now imagine that such person does have a car, but it gets broken, and he doesn't have any other lying around, because he's not wealthy enough. You can also imagine all the kinds of situations where people not poor at all do need of mass transit at a given moment of life. You can imagine for example teenagers or youngsters at their 20s and starting their living in a different city.

There are more things in mass transit than energy density and dollars worth.


"They do not include the eneryg consumed in constructing new rail systems, which is in fact what we are doing at the margins."

Nor they do include the energy consumed in building and maintaining road systems... or do you want to compare apples to oranges?

I agree your question 2) is of some importance.

"Electrification is only a good thing if the fuels used to generate the electricity are cleaner than those they replace."

I wasn't merely talking about such fuels being cleaner. That has dubious answers for known reasons. I was talking about usage of electricity being cleaner where used (in cities), where we happen to live more densely and where air quality should be more well treated.

There is also the problem of energy security. Oil is becoming increasingly scarce, and as in the seventies countries shifted away from oil in electricity generation, perhaps the idea of having alternatives in transport to oil could be a good idea. Just my two cents.


"If the war was about oil all Bush would have had to do was agree with the Russians, the Chinese, and the Europeans, and lobby the UN to lift the sanctions on Hussein and allow Iraq to sell their oil on the open market."

Why not just call everybody and make a peaceful agenda with no wars and no arms race and live happily ever after? It's not as if Hussein had nothing to gain in your scenario. No, imagine that, a egomaniac in control of that much oil in such a critical place in the world... how can that possibly go wrong?

Of course, these things only go out of control because we need the oil. There ought to be no argument on that, but yes I know many people simply don't like this kind of thinking.

Posted by: luis Dias | Aug 5, 2008 10:40:54 AM

Thank you, Nancy Pelosi, for throwing the November election. With luck even your own seat won't be safe.

When anyone suggests that Americans give up our "addiction to oil," I suggest that he give up his addiction to oxygen first.

Posted by: John David Galt | Aug 5, 2008 10:55:22 AM

Metaphorically speaking, the frequently-encountered principle of the many anti-transit posts so far is this: Why build a municipal swimming pool when everyone can have their own pool for the same cost, if not less? Then the municipal pools examined by the anti-sharing crowd are universally corruptly run, badly under-maintained, and in the middle of nowhere. See how much cheaper it is for you to own your own pool?

So Warren and others are completely correct in observing transit, as currently built in the U.S., is baloney (that is the technical term to describe it). Oddly, not mentioned at all is one of the biggest obstacles to working transit: sprawl.

The Congress on New Urbanism points out that the U.S. builds auto-centric sprawl 1500 times more than it builds pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use neighborhoods (mixed use is residences, shopping and offices in the same vicinity). If streets don't have pedestrian amenities, and provide only obstacles to people trying to walk to stops, then how are riders ever going to take the bus, except rarely?

Incidentally for those who still believe that sprawl is what buyers want, market acceptance of the alternatives is so high that such neighborhoods typically sell for premiums over neighboring sprawl. The current record-holder is Seaside FL, where interior lots sell for six times the neighboring sprawl lots. The average premium paid for non-sprawl is at least 40%.

So of course transit is a gigantic, failing boondoggle in the U.S. That is how it, and the connections to it, are *designed*! What's amazing is that it is even slightly close to the efficiency of autos.

Here is what a successful transit system looks like:

The federal government in Brazil gave Curitiba, a large southern city, a grant to build a subway. The mayor, Jaime Lerner, and his staff, discovered that heavy rail (a subway) would cost ten times more than light rail, which, in turn, would cost ten times more than bus rapid transit (buses with dedicated busways).

What usually stops U.S. domestic transit planners from going further to install buses is their capacity. If you can only carry 40 - 80 passengers per driver, the additional drivers' salaries eventually begin to outweigh any savings to install the system. After all, a light rail train only needs one driver no matter how many cars are in the train.

Lerner did not stop there, though, and worked with Volvo to design multi-sectioned "accordian" buses with a capacity of 270 ("The Brazilians are a can-do people," says Lerner, "They can fit 300 in the bus."). This system, called "Speedybus," has been up and running for many years now. It offers at least 100 times the subway's coverage. It puts its handicapped accommodations in the stops rather than the bus, so the buses don't have to carry things like lifts. The stations and fares are owned / managed by the City of Curitiba. The buses are funded by private capital. So is this private or public? Are such questions even relevant?

Of course this transit system is supported by the land use. Denser development appears along the big Speedybus corridors (mixed-use stores and apartments up to six stories tall), while even two blocks away, smaller, less compact neighborhoods thrive, and often have smaller feeder buses to reach the big bus. Curitiba's buses don't have schedules. They just come about every 15 minutes.

Incidentally, this is *not* subsidized at all. It makes money.

See? That's how to make transit. The carping about activists and government is also baloney. Our sympathies. (For more about Curitiba, see Paul Hawken's "Natural Capitalism").

Posted by: Yoshidad | Aug 5, 2008 11:49:44 AM

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