Author: Ted Van Houten

Transit Advocates Pushing For Support In Bus Rapid Transit Debate

Transit advocates are going on the offensive after the Montgomery County Planning Board expressed some reluctance toward the idea of wiping out a lane of regular Rockville Pike traffic for Bus Rapid Transit-exclusive lanes.

That idea, presented in Planning Staff’s Draft Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan a few weeks ago, almost immediately drew skepticism from residents and Planning Board members.

The D.C. based Coalition for Smarter Growth sent an email to supporters on Thursday asking people in favor of the BRT-dedicated lane to email Planning Board members ahead of next week’s second meeting on the Draft, set for Thursday, April 4.

In it, CSG asks “Will we continue to place cars above all else in the decisions we make, or will we begin to make a shift towards providing better options for people than sitting in traffic?”

Montgomery’s proposed Rapid Transit System can transform travel in our county, but there are a number of potential hurdles. This week we are approaching one of those hurdles and we need your voice.

A key part of the Rapid Transit System’s recipe for traffic relief is giving priority to rapid transit vehicles over cars where it’s the most efficient use of our roads. It’s also a principle that has been part of Montgomery’s general plan since 1993. But in hearings last week, some members of the Planning Board appeared to waver in their commitment to this key principle.

As the hearings pick up again, we need to make sure that Montgomery residents are voicing their support for lane priority so that we don’t end up with a watered-down system that makes no impact on reducing traffic.

County staff are hard at work calculating which roads would be the best fit for a high-quality, reliable Rapid Transit System to connect our communities and complement Metro and the coming Purple Line.

Priority lanes for transit aren’t a new idea. 20 years ago, the 1993 Master Plan’s transportation section stated we should “Give priority to establishing exclusive travelways for transit and high occupancy vehicles serving the Urban Ring and Corridor.”

Communities committed to prioritizing transit, like Arlington, Bethesda, and many others have seen success in relieving traffics, providing better options for people to get around, and improving quality of life.  But last week’s Planning Board discussions indicate that they may be wavering on that fundamental point, and that they may need some convincing that prioritizing transit where it’s most efficient is the right decision for the county.

Without a commitment to that concept, building a high quality Rapid Transit System could be very difficult. The debate really comes down to this: How will we share the road?  Will we continue to place cars above all else in the decisions we make, or will we begin to make a shift towards providing better options for people than sitting in traffic?

Many are against the proposal to make three-lane northbound and southbound Rockville Pike from the Beltway to the D.C. line into two lanes of regular traffic with a lane that would be dedicated exclusively to the BRT system, perhaps with stations and boarding areas in the median.

Residents have complained that the BRT system won’t be convenient enough for them to use for non-commuting purposes and that ridership would not offset the traffic impacts of reducing three lanes of already clogged traffic to two.

The Planning Board sent Planning Staff back to the drawing board in order to find new language for the Draft that would put drivers at ease.

“To me, this document screams that we don’t care what happens to drivers and I’m not comfortable taking that position,” Planning Board Chair Francoise Carrier told lead Planning Staff member Larry Cole during the first worksession on March 18.

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Activists say transit priority essential to traffic relief

As Montgomery County planners tweak wording in a draft transit master plan, some activists say prioritizing the 10 corridors and 79 miles of proposed future bus rapid transit is essential to easing traffic gridlock.

The county’s planning board on March 18 rejected the first draft of the Countywide Transit Corridors Functional Master Plan, sending it back to the staff to soften language and explain why the plan recommends giving transit priority over cars and drivers.

The planning board is scheduled to discuss the updated draft at 9 a.m. April 4.

Action Committee for Transit President Tina Slater expressed disappointment that debate over transit priority has delayed the plan’s progress, even if only for a few weeks.

Unlike the county’s Ride On bus system, which is mired in the same traffic that gridlocks cars, BRT will give residents an option they never have had before by moving riders more rapidly in dedicated lanes, she said.

The population of Montgomery is expected to increase by 205,759 people by 2040, according to a Montgomery County Demographic and Travel Forecast, based on a 2012 Metropolitan Washington Council of Government report. Slater questioned how even more residents will get around if the county does not prioritize transit.

“We are going to have a major transportation problem on our hands if we don’t do something now,” she said.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, saw the planning board’s delay as doing its homework to ensure the right routes and dedicated service are recommended.

However, Schwartz said his organization feels there are more corridors poised for dedicated lane service than the staff recommended.

During the discussion on March 18, Planning Commission Chairwoman Francoise M. Carrier said she quarreled with the plan’s “categorical statements that transit gets priority all the time everywhere.”

Carrier argued that any priority should be expressed in more nuanced language.

Acting Planning Director Rose Krasnow said that under the existing procedure, roads get priority, all the time, everywhere, which has greatly harmed the quality of life.

Planning Board Commissioner Casey Anderson cautioned watering down the language.

If the board were discussing a rail line, it would not debate whether it was fair to give it priority over other traffic, he said.

But both the problem and advantage of BRT is that it can operate in a myriad of ways — dedicated lanes, dedicated right-of-way, mixed in traffic, etc. — depending on where it is built.

“And that’s great because it’s very flexible,” Anderson said. “The problem is, whatever is in this plan then gets negotiated down from there. And so this is the high-water mark. If you don’t put it in the plan now, it’s not going to get better for transit, it’s only going to degrade.”

Dedicated lanes, signal priority and queue jumping are proven approaches to bus transit and are being implemented in Montgomery by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority with its MetroExtra limited stop bus service, Schwartz said.

About 700 people ride MetroExtra every day on its route on New Hampshire Avenue, and more routes are planned.

“There’s no better option to manage growth in traffic while maintaining economic competitiveness than investing in dedicated lane transit and transit-oriented communities,” Schwartz said.

Historically, the county approach to traffic congestion was to widen roads.

Yet, many routes proposed in the draft transit master plan cannot be widened, Slater said.

“The only thing you are left to do if the road is as wide as it is today, and you are trying to stuff more people down it, is to put people on something that can move more people than a car,” she said.

But to give BRT dedicated lanes north of the Beltway only to let it snarl in the urban traffic for fear that taking a lane could worsen congestion for the cars would defeat BRT’s purpose, she said.

Once built as planned, BRT will be its own advertisement, Slater said.

Drivers sitting in traffic who see buses bypassing the gridlock will consider taking a bus to get to their destination more quickly, she said.

Reduced from the 160-mile network of 20 corridors recommended last May by the Transit Task Force, planning staff have proposed a 79-mile network of 10 corridors, including U.S. 355 north and south, Georgia Avenue north and south, U.S. 29, Veirs Mill Road, Randolph Road, New Hampshire Avenue, University Boulevard and the North Bethesda Transitway.

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Montgomery County’s population reaches 1 million

Montgomery County became the first jurisdiction in Maryland with a population of more than one million last year after gaining more than 13,000 people since 2011.

U.S. Census data released this month puts the county’s population at 1,004,709 as of July 2012.

Prince George’s County had the next largest population in the state, with 881,138 people. Kent County had the lowest, with 20,191.

Most of Montgomery’s population can be traced to the fact that there were 13,097 births from 2011 to 2012 and only 5,467 deaths, according to the county planning department.

Also during that time, 8,700 people moved from other countries into the county, and 3,100 moved out.

Migration from the county is a trend county planners attribute to the recovering economy and housing market, which gives people more freedom to sell their homes as they find work elsewhere.

“We’ve planned for our population to increase,” Rose Krasnow, the county’s acting director of planning, said in a statement. “Years ago, we set up tools to preserve our agricultural land and maintain our single-family neighborhoods. More recently we have created many mixed-use, multi-family housing opportunities in our downtowns or near Metro.”

A growing population raises the perennial concern of creating more traffic, but the county has been taking the right steps to mitigate increased congestion, said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter-Growth, which advocates for walkable, transit-oriented development.

“[The population] makes it more important than ever that the county continue to focus on transit-oriented development and new rapid-transit systems,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz said the proposed Purple Line light-rail system and bus rapid transit systems — in which buses travel in dedicated lanes to avoid traffic — were the right kind of projects for the county.

The alternative is a scattered, suburban population having to use more crowded roads, he said.

The county’s growth rate from 2011 to 2012 was 1.3 percent, lower than the rates in the previous three years, which ranged from 1.6 percent to 1.8 percent, according to planners.

A similar slowing of growth has also occurred in areas such as Prince George’s County and Fairfax County in Virginia, which also have large population bases, said Roberto Ruiz, research director for the Montgomery County Planning Department. Such decreases are inevitable, he said.

“You’re not going to be able to keep up that rate [if] you’re already starting with a big base,” Ruiz said.

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Smart growth key to Montgomery County’s future

Montgomery County is implementing a Smart Growth Initiative to build on the area’s strengths in biotechnology and health care in a way that will create mixed-use neighborhoods and walkable new housing developments.

The three places where most of this new construction will occur are the Greater Seneca Science Corridor along Route 28, the White Oak Science Gateway west of Gaithersburg and the White Flint expansion along Rockville Pike. Each project possesses the core elements of walkability, rapid transit options and mixed-use development.

“Montgomery County has made it a point to invest in transit-oriented communities, and the most successful were Bethesda and Silver Spring. In the future, it will be Shady Grove, Rockville and White Flint,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

He said the market demand is very strong for development of mixed-use communities around transit. “It’s much stronger than for traditional suburban development,” he added.

Bonnie Casper, the 2012 president of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, said smart growth is the next generation of development after the superfund trend, which involved taking contaminated sites and redeveloping them through mixed-use development to bring commercial and residential areas back to life.

“Smart growth is an extension of that, taking compact urban centers and turning them back into viable areas around transit nodes to avoid the sprawl,” she said. “More urbanized places like Bethesda, Rockville, Kensington, where the population has grown dramatically.”

The Montgomery County Planning Department’s website shows the Greater Seneca Science Corridor along Route 28 includes a major hospital, academic institutions, such as Johns Hopkins University, and private biotechnology companies. It will offer an array of services and amenities for residents, workers and visitors, including connecting destinations by paths and trails and providing opportunities for a range of outdoor experiences.

“There are 60,000 new jobs slated as part of the Shady Grove and Hopkins sites and new housing that will come into the area,” Casper said. “The key is the rapid transit system. It will cost $2 billion to expand the transit nodes to develop a 160-mile system of modern buses that look like subway cars.”

The White Flint project will enhance and expand development that has already occurred along Wisconsin Avenue and Rockville Pike.

“Retail and mixed business are already there, and it will be revamped into more of a mini town center,” Casper said. “There will be condos and townhomes of various sizes.”

The plan calls for 375-square-foot condos with Murphy beds that are the size of a hotel room.

“It’s based on the theory that younger or single people or oven older people will spend less time in their homes,” Casper said. “They will be in the local coffee shop, going to the movies and sitting out on the bench. Kids who have first jobs will be able to afford these.”

Bethesda is undergoing a huge expansion upward, she noted, and there is a tremendous amount of development to feed the needs of the area. A new Harris Teeter is going in, and Casper said it will have a very different look in the future.

Bordered by Route 29, Cherry Hill Road, New Hampshire Avenue and the Prince George’s County line, the White Oak Science Gateway is focused on developing options for a new research and technology node that capitalizes on the growing presence of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is complemented by mixed-use development.

“White Oak is where the FDA is, and it was developed a while ago,” Casper said. “That’s another area slated for expansion with additional research facilities and also commercial development — not just roads to jobs but mixed-use development.”

Schwartz and Casper agreed there is a critical need to fund Metro’s Purple Line to Silver Spring and Bethesda.

“We need to continue to fund the rehab of our Metro systems and to tie these traditional transit corridors to development,” Schwartz said. “The real news is that the Washington, D.C., region is beginning to lead the nation in offering effective alternatives and personal solutions to congestion — well-planned, walkable, and transit-oriented neighborhoods and centers.”

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Testimony to Ms. Lynn Robeson, Esq., Zoning Hearing Examiner Re: 4831 West Lane LLC, Local Map Amendment G-954 and Development Plan Amendment DPA 13-01

Please accept these comments on behalf of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Our organization works to ensure that transportation and development decisions in the Washington, D.C. region, including the Maryland suburbs, accommodate growth while revitalizing communities, providing more housing and travel choices, and conserving our natural and historic areas.

We want to express our strong support for the West Lane multi-family residential project because it enhances the diversity of housing choices and number of MPDUs within such close proximity to the Bethesda Metro station. This is a great benefit to the county and the region because the building provides more housing, especially affordable housing, in a job-rich area, next to Metro. This reduces overall traffic in the region, shortens commutes, reduces household transportation costs, and gives more moderate income households access to the jobs and amenities of a highly desirable community.

After reviewing the proposed plans and public record, consulting with residents, and walking the site, we believe that the project offers its housing benefits through a sensitive and appropriate approach to the building design. The proposed building provides an attractive contribution to a pedestrian-oriented environment and complements the existing nearby residential buildings.

We are especially pleased to see the building’s relationship to Montgomery Lane which forms a supportive urban pedestrian environment. The existing and planned buildings along the north side of Montgomery Lane form a continuous street edge, which the proposed West Lane building completes. The 12 foot upper story setback provides visual interest to the building and addresses concerns of neighbors. A greater setback is not necessary or desirable. A greater setback will not further enhance the ground-level pedestrian environment. In addition, further unnecessary shrinkage of the building could threaten the number of MPDUs provided, while offering no increased public benefit.

The public use space provided at the corner of West Lane and Montgomery Lane is a good approach if it incorporates the main entrance of the building. The public use space at this location achieves two important objectives. It decreases the mass of the building by stepping back the building’s frontage, but still maintains the important building line along the street edge. It also provides a usable urban public space for people to wait or meet friends. The success of the public use space is dependent upon the entrance of the building opening up onto the public use space.

The appropriately scaled building and the well planned public use space are compatible with the neighborhood. The increased number of units ensures more pedestrians on the street – which is consistent with the Sector Plan and a benefit to all. The Sector Plan’s housing diversity goals are also furthered by the West Lane project. The proposed units are smaller and more affordable than those offered in surrounding buildings and include a substantial number of MPDUs – all within 950 feet of the Metro station.

For all of these reasons, the Coalition for Smarter Growth urges approval of the 4831 West Lane project.

Thank you for your consideration.


Cheryl Cort
Policy Director

Arlington is Booming, And Traffic Fantastically Remains at 1970s Levels

Science fiction fans will recognize this plot line. A woman travels into the past, telling her ancestors about her reality in the future, only to be called a lunatic because of the incredible nature of what she is saying.

Anyone who lives and works in 2013 Arlington, Virginia might be met with the same reaction if she were to go back to 1979 and tell someone about the county’s population, employment, and transportation trends.

Arlington’s population and employment have jumped nearly 40 percent over the past three decades. Meanwhile, traffic on major arterials like Wilson and Arlington Boulevards has increased at a much lower rate or even declined.

Nevertheless, according to our latest research (also embedded below), most executives and business managers based in Arlington County think it’s a fantastical notion that the county will meet its goal of capping rush-hour traffic at 2005 levels over the next two decades.

Of course, first these leaders had to learn that Arlington even has this target. Only 11 percent surveyed knew that the county actually intends to keep rush-hour trips and rush-hour vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) at or below 5 percent growth of their respective 2005 levels by 2030 (PDF; 1 MB). This goal is in place even though Arlington County planners expect that the population will rise by 19 percent and jobs will increase by 42 percent over that same period.

Once business leaders heard about the cap, a majority (61 percent) agreed that keeping traffic near 2005 levels is important to achieve. However, given the growth projections, it’s not surprising that so many in our business community do not think that we can get to our goal. It may be worth reminding them that other jurisdictions have more aggressive targets. San José, California, for one, wants to reduce the VMT within its borders by 40 percent from its 2009 level by 2040.

Arlington County Commuter Services continues to refine the way in which the county government keeps a lid on traffic with the infrastructure already in place. In 2012, ACCS’s outreach work throughout the county shifted 45,000 car trips each work day from a solo-driven car to some other form of transportation. The Silver Line’s opening at the end of the year will give new options for the large numbers of Fairfax County residents who travel into Arlington or through it to Washington D.C.

Yet now is also a time in which many of our region’s transportation visionaries and transit providers are thinking big about the future. The Coalition for Smarter Growth just released a report that catalogues the many existing plans to improve transit across the region in order to get us Thinking Big, Planning Smart, and Metro’s Momentum plan for improvements by 2040 is a expression of what the heart of our region’s transportation success could look like for the next generation.

Clearly, the billions of dollars needed to make these and other investments possible will not appear out of thin air and, as a community, the D.C. region will need to make bold decisions (just as Arlington has by strictly following its transportation vision set out in the 1970s).

Luckily, Arlington’s business community seems to be on board. Seventy-nine percent think that improving the transit system is important. And Arlington’s track record of success and the attitudes found in our survey of business leaders indicate that meeting the county’s traffic goal is realistic after all.

Does your community have an explicit goal to cap traffic? If so, we would like to hear about it, because seeing the state of practice helps us all make the case that taming traffic is, in fact, possible. Just like in science fiction, it only seems crazy because we have not done it yet.

Photo courtesy of Mobility Lab

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Helping Virginia grow — wisely

The March 13 editorial “Leave well enough alone,” on the Virginia transportation bill, characterized the coalition that defeated the 2002 referendum on a sales tax for transportation as “anti-growth activists and anti-tax conservatives.” This is a false characterization.

The leading activists have consistently supported planning for robust growth in the region. During the referendum debate, the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Piedmont Environmental Council released a plan for redevelopment and economic growth that focused on the areas around the region’s rail stations. The region has embraced this vision through its Region Forward plan and local implementation of new transit-oriented development projects.

In Fairfax County, business and political leaders recognize transit-oriented development as the pivot for continued economic growth. The Coalition for Smarter Growth has endorsed and supported millions of square feet of development and thousands of housing units that bolster a smart-growth future. The Post should recognize this.

Douglas Stewart, Fairfax

The writer is a grants specialist at the Piedmont Environmental Council.

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Manassas battlefield must be protected from traffic

Regarding Robert McCartney’s March 7 Metro column “Deal is near to shift traffic out of Manassas battlefield park”:

Everyone involved agrees on the need to direct commuter traffic away from the national battlefield park to protect the park’s history, meaning and visitors. However, not everyone agrees that the proposed new highways can solve traffic problems.

Omitted from Mr. McCartney’s column was the Virginia Department of Transportation’s agreement to analyze a package of practical, lower-impact transportation projects that could provide relief for east-west commuters and the park. That analysis must be completed and considered before this process moves forward. The draft agreement does not yet provide specific, enforceable provisions to close Route 29 and Route 234 inside the park if the new highways are built.

The ghosts of Manassas’s fallen soldiers deserve better. To move forward without an ironclad guarantee that the roads will be closed would put the history and culture of Virginia’s most recognized battlefield in jeopardy.

Joy M. Oakes, Washington

The writer is senior regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

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Transit, Purple Line Activists Hit Annapolis For Lobby Day

Transit and smart growth activists greeted leaders in Annapolis today with gravestones representing “the impending death” of transportation projects such as the Purple Line if the General Assembly does not come up with transportation funding in this legislative session.

Representatives from D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth, which is spearheading the “Get Maryland Moving” campaign, Purple Line Now and others made the slushy trek to the State House to meet with about 20 legislators and put on the demonstration.

State Transportation officials say without a source for state transportation funding, matching federal dollars for the 16-mile Purple Line light rail that would connect Bethesda with Chevy Chase, Silver Spring and College Park, among other places, would be in jeopardy.

The Maryland Department of Transportation plans to halt design work on the $2.2 billion project if no funding is provided from the current General Assembly.

On Monday, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), House Speaker Michael Busch (D) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D) announced their plan for a new tax on gas wholesalers that is projected to mean a 2-cent hike in gas prices this July and another 7-cent hike next July. The plan is projected to bring in $3.4 billion over the next five years, which likely would not be able to fund for the Purple Line and the Red Line light rail project in Baltimore simultaneously.

“In spite of the weather, we couldn’t have chosen a better time to come to Annapolis. We’re thrilled to finally see unified action and leadership from Governor O’Malley, Speaker Busch, and President Miller, and will do all we can as residents to organize for a statewide solution that invests in real transportation solutions for all Marylanders”, said Robbyn Lewis, founder of the Red Line Now PAC, in a prepared statement.

According to polls, a clear majority of Marylanders are against any raise in gas prices. Republicans against the proposal have argued the transit projects the funds will help support do not benefit rural areas of the state.

Rendering via Maryland Transit Administration

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Deal is near to shift traffic out of Manassas battlefield park

The National Park Service and Virginia authorities are close to signing a major Civil War battlefield preservation deal that eventually would close two congested roads that slice through the twice-hallowed ground at Manassas.

The agreement, which could be signed by the summer, would provide for routes 234 and 29 to be shut down inside Manassas National Battlefield Park. That would happen once new highways are built along the western and northern edges of the battlefield and serve as bypasses.

“We’re down to the wire here. It looks good,” said Ed Clark, the park superintendent, a key architect of the pact. “It puts the goal of removing all the traffic from the battlefield within sight.”

There are downsides, of course. It could be more than 20 years before both highways, sometimes called the Bi-County Parkway and the Battlefield Bypass, are completed.Local residents and environmental groups said they would destroy the rural character that drew them to western Prince William County. Some accuse the Park Service, which previously has resisted new roads and development, of selling them out.

On the bright side, however, shutting the roads inside the park would be one of the biggest achievements ever to restore the authenticity and improve the visitors’ experience at the premier Civil War battlefield closest to Washington.

The 1861 Battle of Manassas, known in the North as Bull Run, was the war’s first full-scale engagement. It’s the one where Washington’s elite naively took carriages 30 miles to the scene for a picnic, thinking war was a spectator sport.

They were shocked when the Rebels routed the Union troops and sent them scampering back to the capital.

The same ground was the site of a second battle a year later, even bloodier than the first. It marked one of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s greatest victories and helped encourage him to invade Maryland, where he was turned back at the historic battle at Antietam.

The Park Service and preservationists have long been unhappy principally with the steadily rising traffic inside the battlefield. On a typical workday, more than 50,000 vehicles pass through the intersection of 234 and 29 in the center of the park.

Congestion is so bad that it’s often impossible to complete the driving tour that traces the highlights of Second Manassas.

“What we’ve been saying for more than a decade is the biggest threat to this park is the commuter and industrial traffic that goes through it every day,” said Jim Campi, spokesman for the Civil War Trust.

Campi’s group hasn’t yet formally endorsed the deal, known as a Section 106 programmatic agreement under federal historic preservation law. His group wants to be sure the final form guarantees that both roads, and not just one, will eventually be closed. That’s important because plans provide for the closures to be in two phases.

In the first phase, when the north-south, Bi-County Parkway is completed west of the park, 234 would be closed inside it. State and local authorities are keen to push that ahead quickly. Local residents who stand to lose property, and other groups, are agitating to block it.

The park would have to give up four acres of land for the Bi-County Parkway and allow a noisy, four-lane highway to be built nearby. Clark, the park superintendent, doesn’t like that but says it would be worth it to eliminate a road that’s also pretty noisy and cuts right through his battlefield.

“We’re giving some on the periphery to get an awful lot in the core, in the center of the park,” Clark said.

In the second phase, possibly as late as 2035, the Battlefield Bypass would be built north of the park. Only then would 29 be closed within it.

Clark said that as part of the deal, he insisted that the Virginia Department of Transportation pledge firmly to close both roads once the new highways are built. His nightmare would be that he agrees to new highways just outside his park, only to see the state renege on its promise to shut the roads within.

“They would have to double-cross us to do that,” Clark said. “We have to operate in good faith here that they’re going to stick to their word.”

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