Mike Nevin on BART and Caltrain, August 1999

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This television broadcast was transcribed by Adrian Brandt.

Peninsula This Week
BART and Caltrain on the Peninsula

Broadcast on TCI Cable Channel 8 in San Mateo County
Friday, August 8, 1999, at 7:30 p.m.

    "Electrifying Caltrain, is the big buzz word now. Most of it means stop BART ... a lot of those that are saying that really don't mean it. What they really mean is stop BART in Millbrae."

    "Electrification has nothing to do with speed ... or efficiency of the line. The only reason for electrification, in my opinion, would be, if in fact, Caltrain at some time or another, went to downtown San Francisco ... the only real gain is about 5 minutes savings in time and speed to get from San Jose to San Francisco."

    "...all the dollars that will be spent on Caltrain, can't be wasted dollars--they have to be dollars that can go into either system when the time comes to make that [BART or Caltrain] decision ... and I think it's gonna be sooner than people think."

    --Mike Nevin, San Mateo County Supervisor, Member of Caltrain Joint Powers and SamTrans Boards, Bay Area Air Quality Management District Board Chairman
Hosts:Bob Marks
Mark Simon, SF Chronicle "Peninsula Insider" columnist
Guests:Mike Nevin, San Mateo County Supervisor, Member of Caltrain JPB, SamTrans boards
Bryan Godbe, Political Pollster

Marks: Get ready for the first serious look at extending BART around the Bay in nearly four decades. Would you like to see it happen? Are you willing to pay for it? Well, join us on Peninsula This Week as we discuss the issue with San Mateo County's top transportation leader and our area's leading political pollster. Stay with us.

(intro music plays)

Marks: I'm Bob Marks...

Simon: ...and I'm Mark Simon. Welcome to Peninsula This Week. Our guests today are San Mateo County Supervisor Mike Nevin who is leading a new government, labor, business coalition that's going to look into transportation problems and gridlock, and pollster Bryan Godbe of Godbe Communications, or whatever the title is, Godbe Polling, of Half Moon Bay who's been commissioned by a local business group to ask some of the public some questions about transportation. Mike, let's start with you. You've formed the Economic Vitality Partnership which is supposed to look into the transportation issues. How urgent do you feel the need to come up with something and is it something you feel will be going on the ballot anytime soon?

Nevin: I've felt that it's been urgent ever since I started on the Board of Supervisors, and I don't want anybody to be misled that just the recent publicity regarding BART down the 101, like this is a new idea, a new concept and something that we haven't been working on. I sit on Samtrans; I sit on Caltrain's Board of Directors; we've spent a lot of money positioning ourselves for mass transit in the future; BART is moving at 50 feet a day to San Francisco International Airport as we speak; and we have a plan--a 20-year strategic plan--for our jewel, our right of way, the one that we purchased in 1992 for approximately 125 million dollars; that's the old SP right of way that's now Caltrain. So it's not like no one's doing anything... we're positioning ourselves for the future, and there is an urgency to get it done, but not an urgency such that we make major mistakes and avoid our jewel, and, uh, and don't do it correctly--we have to do it right.

Simon: When do you think this partnership is going to report back on what it recommends? By the end of this year?

Nevin: I think by the end of the year, or early into the spring, we'll have a pretty good idea what this partnership is thinking, and positioning ourselves, that is, for the future ballot and issues next year; there's two issues on the ballot: one in March and one in November, having to do with transportation state-wide. And those two issues will...

Simon: ...one is to approve the bullet train and finance that...

Nevin: ...correct...

Simon: ...the other is the John Burton proposal...

Nevin: ...John Burton 16 billion dollars spending over the next eight years for transportation in the state.

Simon: So it may be that you won't have to put something on the ballot, but that you can find a way to make the most out of those two proposals, assuming they're approved.

Nevin: We might still need a ballot initiative so that we could use a half-cent sales tax to complement... we've done it twice now... we've asked the public. The public has said "yes" to BART going to the airport. The public has said "yes" to Caltrain and the purchase of the right of way. The public's been for us with a two-thirds vote every time we've asked for transportation. So I see the urgency, and I know what the public say, we have to do it right.

Marks: Bryan, let me ask you, ahhhh, and I know that you didn't test it in the survey, per se, how urgent the public feels about this, but do you get a sense from the polling, this poll, or other polls that you've done, what the sense of urgency is, from the voters, the people in San Mateo County?

Godbe: Well, you're right, we didn't ask it just that way, Bob. We asked a variety of issues and rank them. And what we found is that 80% of the people think that extending BART throughout San Mateo County is an important issue, and in that group, two-thirds of them said it's a very important issue. So when it gets those sort of numbers, while we're not talking about urgency, it says they want something done. As we went, got in further into the poll, we asked people if extending BART would reduce traffic, would that make you more likely to support or not? 81% said that reducing traffic would be a reason to support a BART extension. That tells me there's an urgency and a traffic problem that the voters are reacting to.

Simon: Do you test the popularity of Caltrain at all? There are BART people and there are Caltrain people, and they obviously don't think the two system can complement each other. So the question is, is one more popular than the other?

Godbe: We did actually ask a question whether you would like to see BART only, BART and Caltrain, or Caltrain only. 20% said BART only, 57% said BART and Caltrain, 12% said Caltrain only. The voters want choices, and you see that over and over again, in terms of candidates, in terms of ballot measures, in terms of options presented to them, and this is another where they want transportation choices as well.

Simon: But Mike, how likely is it we're gonna come back--you're gonna come back--with a recommendation that includes both BART and Caltrain?

Nevin: Not at this time. We can't. We're going to have to do either one or the other, and perhaps in the future we'll have both, but we're surely not going to have both right now. And that's why... and, and, believe me, I have a lot of confidence in, in Bryan--I've worked with Bryan Godbe in the past--and have a lot of confidence in what he does. And he's working for a couple clients--not several--but a couple clients here, where I think the polling was somewhat flawed in that they dealt with a 101 right of way extension going nowhere, going to Menlo Park, rather than including a right of way that we own. Which right of way makes the most sense at this time in history? We own one of 'em; we don't own the other--Caltrans does.

Marks: Is it possible to have BART extended and maintain Caltrain on that right of way?

Nevin: We won't know that until we see the results of these two initiatives on the ballot... that have to do with the electrification of Caltrain. Whether.... Electrifying.... Caltrain, is the big buzz word now. Most of it means stop BART, in a lot of people's minds, and I understand that...

Simon: Let me interrupt. It is a buzz word, so does it mean when people say they want to electrify Caltrain? Basically turn it into a light rail system?

Nevin: In my opinion--light rail system--but in my opinion, a lot of those that are saying that really don't mean it. What they really mean is stop BART in Millbrae. And that's what annoying about this whole process. We did a 20 year strategic plan about, regarding our right of way. We're talking about a billion dollars to fix our right of way. 300 million dollars to, reconstruction, if you will, of the right of way... earthquake damage, trackage problems, the leveling of the line, uh, grade separations ... other things. And then we have another 375 million dollars identified that would be needed for electrification. Electrification has nothing to do with speed ... or efficiency of the line. The only reason for electrification, in my opinion, would be, if in fact, Caltrain at some time or another, went to downtown San Francisco 2nd and Beale.

Simon: Well, well, the people who advocate electrification of Caltrain argue consistently that its vastly cheaper than BART, which they also argue is one of the most expensive transit systems in the history of mankind. So, you say the only reason--there is another reason which is they say it's cheaper, isn't it?

Nevin: It... It... I... <unintelligible> ... you know, when you finally figure out what those dollars actually are, and it's cheaper, I doubt, that electrifying Caltrain and the expenditure of 375 million dollars to do it, where the only, the only real gain is about 5 minutes savings in time and speed to get from San Jose to San Francisco, I don't know justification of 375 million dollars really makes sense. But we're doing it. We're, we're getting it done. And we, and we have to do it in stages and in increments. We have to first of all fix that line, fix that right of way, for whatever mass transit of the future goes down that line. We need to continue to grade separate, to make it safer, to make traffic move faster, quicker, east-west. And there's big concerns in the cities, for example, not to put up the brick... the, the Wall of China, if you will, there has to be able to be pedestrian movement and car movement moving east and west along that right of way. All the dollars were spending on Caltrain so far, and all the dollars that will be spent on Caltrain, can't be wasted dollars--they have to be dollars that can go into either system when the time comes to make that decision.

Marks: Bryan, in the survey, were people asked about the alignment question, or going down 101 versus going down the right of way, or is that something that they really care about?

Godbe: Since we were testing a specific proposal, which did highlight going down the 101 right of way, we did test just that way. And we got 70% of the people said they would support it down the 101 corridor--support the plan that we tested. We didn't give them a choice between the right of ways. Ah, but, while that was supported overwhelmingly, the other problem with that is when we tested the negative, which was there may be traffic delays due to construction on 101--that's a big negative. And so people, while they didn't seem to be opposed to the right of way itself, were concerned about the implications it might have during construction.

Simon: Let me ask you a flip side of this question. If, if doing something about BART or doing something about Caltrain is as popular as you say it is--as your survey shows it is--what's going to happen to Mike his Economic Vitality Partnership, in the public's eyes, if they don't come up with something relatively soon?

Godbe: Well, there's a variety of issues that are also on the table. Um, transportation was one of the top five. There's also reducing crime and the other kinds of ... improving the quality of education. So this is not exclusively the San Mateo County voters' number one issue. Education still remains and always has been. Ummm, but it's something of importance, and I think as the traffic goes up, the responses that we see and hear about, traffic being the number one reason to build BART, are just going to get greater and greater. And we're already at 80% of the people saying that's the reason to build BART.

Marks: Mike, you've seen the situation evolve over a number of years. And it's clear the situation is getting worse. Ah, the question is at what point will we get to a crisis, at what point will the pressure be such from the public on local elected officials, ah, to really make something come forward. I, I know it's not easy, but do you get a sense for how close we are to that kind of boiling point on this issue?

Nevin: No, not, not yet. What I'm going to attempt to do here in this next year with this EVP committee is to, first of all, ah, we haven't resolved the problem, but give us credit for moving BART as we have, we, we, and it was a heck of a contract without having to join the BART system. We did well by the people of San Mateo County. We're changing our Samtrans system to become a shuttle system to mass transit, to now-existing Caltrain, and then when BART does go to the airport. We're changing that south-north traffic that you see on the El Camino, buses going back and forth, and moving people out of the hills of the Peninsula and into mass transit. We're doing a lot of things as we're reconstructing that line. So it's not like we're sitting around and all of the sudden a miracle is going to happen out of this EVP group. But I hear the public. I hear what the public is saying. And I want to participate, I, I have ... we--San Mateo County--has a great relationship with the BART staff, the BART Board of Directors, we're in contact with them. I'm meeting next week with, uh, Mayor <clears throat>, excuse me, Ron Gonzales of San Jose, and Scott Haggerty of Alameda County. They're going to be discussing the BART connection from Fremont into San Jose. I want to be in on those meetings so I know what's happening, so I'm on top of the situation, and it'll poise us and position us for our future here in San Mateo County.

Marks: Let me ask you though, part of this new group--business is an important element in this new group--they were clearly the driving force for the previous initiative, I mean they were your client, Bryan, and so my question is, what role are they going to play in this new effort? How important are they, how critical are they?

Nevin: Not nearly enough of them. Let's be fair about this. This was paid for by SAMCEDA ... happened to be paid for partially by the taxpayers of San Mateo County, and the cities and counties participate in SAMCEDA. But there was just a few businesses, and there was not nearly enough business, and, and our objective here will ... to ... a politics of inclusion to get, to bring business to the plate, to look at Genentech, to look at Oracle, and to look at Electronic Arts, and to ask these folks--the Franklin Fund--to come to the plate here, that we'll do our job, and we'll look at a half-cent sales tax, and we'll become the highest tax payers in the state--in the future--if in fact, you join us in this effort. You do something about a shuttle system. You do something about your workday, your workforce working different hours. You do something to cooperate with us, and work with us, to make this a reality. That's what we need--not just one or two companies standing with my former colleague from the Board of Supervisors who said this is a great idea. We need everyone, and we're going to attempt to get 'em.

Simon: Don't forget United Airlines and the airport.

Nevin: United Airlines and the airport.

Simon: Bryan, in your survey, did you test how important it was, how much support would be gained for a measure if they knew that the major business employers in the county were also behind this?

Godbe: Ah, we did test it a couple different ways. We looked at it as your local Chamber of Commerce, which was representative of business from the small retail downtown store, all the way up to the Oracle. And those entities were overwhelmingly popular and increased support. In fact the only organization that was higher was Samtrans itself, and that's because voters are looking to them as transportation experts, because that's what the name of the organization is all about. So, yes, the business as a coalition is critical to this kind of support. And if you look at the model of success in Santa Clara for their recent sales taxes, and if you even go back to the sales taxes that have been successful for transportation in this county, the model is you have to have a broad coalition of businesses. But it's not just businesses. Its got to be environmentalists. Its got to be senior citizens. Ah, its got to be everybody. Ah, that's an important component and Mike's right, it takes a while to build that and you've got to have that kind of coalition.

Marks: We're going to continue our discussion with Bryan Godbe and Supervisor Mike Nevin. We'll be back and we'll talk about BART; we'll talk about the effort that Mike alluded to about the possibility of Alameda and Santa Clara County and San Mateo County perhaps working together. So stay with us, we'll be right back...


Simon: Welcome back to Peninsula This Week. We're talking transportation, BART, Caltrain, the whole ball of wax with San Mateo County Supervisor Mike Nevin and with pollster Bryan Godbe. Mike, you made a brief allusion the first half of the show to meeting with Ron Gonzales. I know in the past you've said that you think if BART extends to San Jose, it puts us in a great bargaining position. Would you tell us what you think that means?

Nevin: San Mateo County made a horrible mistake--not the county--its Board of Supervisors on the 3 to 2 vote that we all know about in the early 60's, and we spent four decades now trying to make up for that.

Simon: The vote to not join BART?

Nevin: No, I'm sorry, the vote to not join BART system--and we're still not in the system. We're very lucky, very, very lucky, in my opinion, that BART needed us when they wanted to come to San Francisco International Airport. They needed our geography. They needed our right of way. They needed to come into San Mateo County. We did it on a contractual basis. We came in 7 miles into the airport. I'm not sure we're going to be allowed to do that the next time---if in fact BART is going to come through San Mateo County. I think there would be a lot of negotiations regarding the joining of the BART system. Tom Heuning's proposal was a billion and a half to go down the 101, that Samtrans later said was two and half billion dollars to go down the 101, and that's not even talking about the price that Caltrans would charge for the purchase of that right of way and what BART would charge for the right to be part of their system. So those costs gets up in the billions of dollars, way above three and probably to four billion dollars where you've ignored our right of way that we spent the money to purchase. I... I've gone to far, I've missed the point of your question and I know it, so what were you asking? <laughter>

Simon: Well, here's the thing, you, you think that by, if BART extends to San Jose through Alameda County, we're in the driver's seat because they realize they're going to need to <unintelligible> us.

Nevin: Correct. We're the last link. We're the last link.

Simon: Basically they're going to need us like they did need us for SFO.

Nevin: Correct, yeah.

Simon: One of the complications is that when this Heuning / de Ville proposal first came up, I called the people in Santa Clara County and asked them where they stood on BART, and they say it's not on their radar screen at all. That there's simply not something they're even discussing, they're perfectly satisfied with what Caltrain gives them and that their problems are more feeding the companies, developing more localized shuttle systems to take care of these people. So, you say it puts us in a bargaining position... Does it really?

Nevin: Yeah, I think it does. It puts us in a bargaining position similar to what it did in the case of the airport. If we are the last link, there's going to be a lot of interest on the part of folks in San Mateo County. There's going to be a lot of interest. There's interest in the BART folks right now. You read their letter. That right of way did not make sense. The timing didn't make sense. It wasn't the time to do it. Warm Springs has been on the books for a long time to move on down to Santa Clara County. Everything, you know, we have to do, we, we, there's an urgency, but we have to it without a lot of fanfare and excitement, we have to do it very professionally and concisely, we have to look at it steadily and look at it whole, and timing is very, very important, as it was in the case of San Francisco International. I think the time will come when that decision is gonna be before us, and I think it's gonna be sooner than people think.

Marks: Let me ask you though, and back to Mark's point, um, which I assume you didn't talk to Ron Gonzales because the new mayor of San Jose--ah, has been, that was a major thing in his campaign, he's pushing it, so it's important to him. Is there an opportunity now, not unlike what we saw in the early 60's, for a number of counties to join together, specifically Alameda, Santa Clara, and San Mateo and put together some kind of super measure that would go to the voters to actually fulfill that dream that was missed in '62. Do you see that, this is the beginning of that opportunity?

Nevin: I think it's a possibility. I think that the initiatives that we talk about for the ballot, the Burton initiative, with those kinds of dollars, with Burton being a Bay Area San Franciscan State Senator Senate pro-tem leader in the Senate right now who said his mother didn't give him birth to be a transportation expert, but that's number one <laughter> on everybody's minds these days. I think that, and I think the opportunity in the east bay. And I appreciate, uh, my colleague Scott, uh, Haggerty and, uh, Ron Gonzales allowing me to sit in on these meetings. I think that's the kind of regional cooperation you need. But I think we have to be realists too. I think we do things in segments. I think that the airport project had to be done. You know, we could be talking about this, but real dollars are going to come after we've completed this project. And I think real dollars for San Mateo County in the future will come after that extension is completed over in Warm Springs.

Simon: But, but you know, you've got ... oh, I'm sorry, go ahead Bryan.

Godbe: Well, I think the voters are saying in San Mateo County they want to see BART around the Bay. 80% of them said that. Uh, I think that if you tested it in Santa Clara County, you'd hear the same thing. And I think if you tested it in southern Alameda County, you'd hear the same thing. I think it's important to remember the economy has changed dramatically. This isn't 1963, where people are going north on 101. All you need to do is get on 101 at 8 o'clock in the morning and they're going south. And they're going south from San Francisco because that's where the new high tech employees live, so they can work in the Valley. So there's a lot of changes from ... <interrupt>

Nevin: And my ... and I submit we're doing that. I'm submitting we're going to the airport. And I submit we're doing something about the Caltrain right of way. We're taking a right of way that's 100 years old, and we're reconstructing it. And we're not wasting a dime as we're doing it. We're doing all the necessary things, at Samtrans, with the Transportation Authority, with the JPB, we're doing all the things necessary to position us for that future.

Simon: But, but the question ... you know, we've talked a number of times about the Joint Powers Board that runs Caltrain, and the failure of our adjoining counties to participate financially, in other words to put up the amount of money they're committed to put up. San Francisco is worse than Santa Clara County. Santa Clara County has had its because it has been in financial straits.

Nevin: Boy, is it frustrating. You're absolutely right.

Simon: So, then, here we are saying we're now going to form yet another more expensive partnership with at least one of those counties--Santa Clara County--and I suppose you could argue we're joining a ... <interrupt>

Nevin: Mark, the reality is, that if we get lucky, and if the taxpayers of California vote for a half-cent sales tax--statewide--and put up 23 billion dollars, they're coming down our right of way. And the San Francisco's 11 million ... <interrupt>

Simon: You're talking about the bullet trains?

Nevin: The bullet train, the high speed rail, is going to dictate the future of our right of way and is going to pay for all those things that need to be done to poise us for a mass transit future in this county.

Simon: Gotta make sure everybody understands: when you talk about the bullet train, you're not talking about the bullet train becoming a commuter train.

Nevin: No, no...

Simon: But we'd use that line when the bullet train isn't using it.

Nevin: That's right, so the need to do grade separations, for example, that I'm speaking about, we're doing in Belmont and San Carlos, and we're trying to get done throughout the whole system. All of those, all those costs will be absorbed, if you will, to improve that right of way to make it ready for the bullet train, while simultaneously making it ready for us and our own system that will adjoin, that, our, it's our own right of way, we're going to have one system on that right of way, plus a bullet train, if it passes. So all bets are on--if the voters of California approve this, this uh, high speed rail system from southern California to northern California.

Marks: Bryan, ah, when you tested, you talk about 80% of the people wanting to see BART around the Bay. I know that you asked them how much they're willing to pay for it, and are they willing to pay a half-cent sales tax. What was the reaction, um, when that question came up?

Godbe: We asked it actually two times, because what we're trying to do here is simulate a campaign, not take a snapshot of today, but a snapshot after a substantial hundreds of thousands of dollars of political campaign is waged. Ah, today, almost 50% support it. After that campaign is waged, we see close to 60% supporting a half-cent sales tax in this county. Ah, and that's similar to the model that Santa Clara County used as well.

Marks: What about, what about the question of joining the BART system. Was that asked?

Godbe: We did actually ask that, and, interestingly enough, the voters are just about split on it. It's about 45% for joining the system, and 45% for contracting with them, and the rest are undecided.

Simon: Did that question include how much it might cost to join the BART system?

Godbe: No. It just ... do you, conceptually do you want to join and get the advantage of having a director on the board and also paying property taxes--and weren't specific as to what that might be, but the tax component is in there--versus contracting and using whatever dollars were raised in San Mateo County. And they were split.

Simon: One of the things the BART system--the BART Board of Directors--is looking forward to, is, is us joining the system and kicking in just a heck of a lot of cash for the right to do that. Did you, ah, when you took your survey, and, ah, many of the people became convinced they would support this, what were the main arguments you made to tell them why they should be supportive?

Godbe: The biggest arguments were reducing traffic congestion on 101, ah, BART is also, ah, more handicapped accessible than Caltrain is, and that was a tremendous argument too. It's an interesting point, and we've seen it over and over again, people are interested in things being handicapped accessible. Ah, those are probably the biggest two reasons to support BART.

Simon: But Mike, how realistic is it to think that no matter what we build. Even if we build the big three: we build BART, we've got the bullet train, we've got Caltrain and even double the bus system. Traffic's not going to down on the Bayshore, is it? The best we can hope for ... <interrupt>

Nevin: No, it's just going to be controlled. To try and control ... it's going to go up, as a matter of fact if you look at growth over the next several years. But, it's going to be more ...it's going to be, it's going to be a major step in, in controlling traffic and controlling as traffic increases. We did a century study, by the way, that showed that there were two major needs here--both corridors, the 280 corridor and the 101 corridor. Now, uh, our right of way, our jewel, the El Camino Real, the Caltrain/SP right of way is the answer--I believe--is from a cost perspective. Uh, you're asking about the buy in to BART, or, we own the right of way. It's a lot easier than going out 101.

Simon: So we can ante that up as part of our buy in. Is what you're saying?

Nevin: Yeah, correct.

Simon: What's the distinction when you say, you know, the thing you test was reducing traffic. I'm very skeptical that anything you do is actually going to result in fewer cars on the road. You're talking about controlling traffic. What's the difference? What do you mean by controlling?

Nevin: Well I mean controlling more in peak time hours. Our concern ... we're never gonna change this nation. We're never gonna get people get really get out of their automobiles. We gotta be honest about that. What we need to be doing though, is we need to be doing something about the commute time hours. And its getting so bad now. If we have a system, a fast speedy system going down our right of way, it's going to get people out of their cars, and it's going help control traffic, or make traffic somewhat easier on the 101. We'll never get people out of their cars 24 hours a day. It's those peak-time hours that we're concerned about. And that's all we're really trying to do here.

Marks: Isn't it true Mike, though, you know, that when you look at the BART extension to the airport, I mean the numbers I saw when that campaign was run, about 65,000 rides on that. So what it does is, as we add these new jobs and as we add new people, ah, you know, we're not doubling, we're getting people onto the rail, and then we're, you know, we're kind of staying where we are, status quo. Isn't that really the goal, is, is to just keep it from getting out of control?

Nevin: No. We, we'd like to do as much as reasonably we can. And we need to be coming up with systems that we ... that's why I'm interested also in the waterways. The problem with the waterways is you still gotta get people to ... you gotta get people to BART, you gotta get people to Caltrain, you gotta get people out to the Bay. But we need to be exploring all of those things simultaneously, if you will, and continue in the effort. This is a major step. This our right of way. We own it. That's our jewel. That's our future. Uhh, and as far as I'm--my sitting on the Board of Supervisors, I see the potential of bringing that line, that right of way, to its fullest potential during my time.

Simon: Bryan, briefly, we haven't asked about the environmental community. It's always been an important component politically around here. Uh, if the environmental community came out against this proposal, I know you probably didn't test that specifically, but what's your sense of what might happen to its popularity?

Godbe: We actually did test it. And it is a negative. But the broad base of businesses and some anti-tax groups--or people that we would normally think are anti-tax groups, helps offset that. <interrupt>

Marks: Bryan, I've got to stop you there, unfortunately. I want to thank Bryan Godbe, Godbe Research, Mike Nevin, County Supervisor, and I'm Bob Marks.

Simon: And I'm Mark Simon. Thank you for joining us on Peninsula This Week. We'll see you next time.

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