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Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012
Public works funds best spent fixing aging infrastructure
Last week's Lower House election was all about what people didn't want — the Democratic Party of Japan — but the issue foremost in voters' minds was the state of the economy, and new prime minister Shinzo Abe has made that his first priority by pledging to boost inflation through monetary easing and ¥200 trillion in public works over the next ten years.
This latter strategy has delighted general contractors. The president of a Gifu Prefecture construction association told the weekly Post that he was "looking forward to the return of the Liberal Democratic Party" since public works spending decreased by 35 percent under the DPJ. "Everyone is convinced that we need facilities for disaster prevention," he added, referring to the main focus of the proposed outlay. However, Abe's scheme also alarmed some in the financial community who say that mass spending will only exacerbate Japan's national debt. Pork barrel public expenditure, referred to derisively as baramaki (literally, "throwing seeds"), was a pillar of the LDP's agenda until Junichiro Koizumi took the party reins at the turn of the century and made privatization and fiscal tightening his life's work. He was the last prime minister who was generally popular, so for Abe to go back to the old ways could be risky, but one recent news item is so fortuitous as to be downright scary.
The collapse of the ceiling in the Chuo Expressway's Sasago Tunnel on Dec. 2, which killed nine people, has provided a readymade rationale for Abe's scheme. Even before the election the media was exploring the matter of how much money will be needed to inspect and rebuild Japan's infrastructure, not just highways and tunnels but bridges, waterworks, public housing, harbors. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun estimates it's about ¥8 trillion a year, while the construction ministry says it will need ¥190 trillion over the next 50 years just for maintenance. Two weeks ago, a group of scholars discussed the Sasago incident on NHK radio and one explained that Japan is unique in the developed world for having built almost all its infrastructure during a very brief, intense period of growth in the 1960s and 70s. All these facilities must be renovated or replaced very soon if not immediately. It's a huge undertaking separate from and perhaps more urgent than the need for disaster prevention measures.
A related article in Tokyo Shimbun stated that politicians are always interested in bringing public works projects to their constituencies, but it is usually new construction they want. An engineering professor interviewed in the article said there's a proverb in the construction industry: New building is "like a flower" while maintenance is merely "sparrows' tears," meaning that like a sparrow's tears it's an insignificant consideration in terms of revenue. Companies always promote new construction, thus engendering a habit of neglect when it comes to existing facilities.
This habit was manifest in the Sasago Tunnel collapse. Yozo Fujino, a University of Tokyo professor of social infrastructure, told Tokyo Shimbun that the fallen ceiling panels, installed for ventilation purposes, were afterthoughts to the engineers who designed the tunnel and the company that maintained it. They were more interested in the tunnel structure itself, which is why they didn't bother much with checking the soundness of the anchor bolts. The tunnel is a feat of engineering while the ceiling panels are simply an addition. That may explain why Central Nippon Expressway Co. called the collapse sōteigai (unimaginable), the same adjective Tokyo Electric Power used to describe the accident at their Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The last time CNE carried out a "hammer test" was in 2000, five years before it was privatized. Last April, the company drafted guidelines for inspections that included hammer tests, but they were discarded after it was determined that such testing would require closing the tunnels, which would cost the company a lot of revenue.
Another matter that came out in the Sasago coverage was removal, which is even less sexy than maintenance and renovation. Experts are saying that with the inevitable loss of population, some infrastructure is no longer needed, and the environment would be better off without it. The Asahi Shimbun recently reported on the Arase Dam in Kumamoto Prefecture, the first large-scale dam in Japan to undergo demolition. Takayoshi Igarashi, a frequent media pundit on public works projects, told the paper that dams have expiration dates, too, and when one is destroyed the sludge it has accumulated must be removed because if it drains into rivers and the ocean it could kill everything in its path.
Igarashi calls for a Public Works Law, a series of regulations that specifies the conditions for launching or cancelling projects, delineates responsibilities, and sets compensation and maintenance timetables. Such a law was being discussed on March 11, 2011, and the disaster that occurred that day would have proved its relevance if it had been in effect. Igarashi says the construction of temporary housing benefited builders more than the people they were meant to shelter. He served on the advisory panel for the law and thinks it would have been better to give the money earmarked for temporary housing directly to victims and let them sort out their own needs. If there had been a Public Works Law, such an option might have been available.
The renovation and demolition of existing infrastructure alone could keep Abe's plan for public works spending viable for decades, though it may not appease critics who claim the LDP's past baramaki policies are responsible for Japan's current fiscal woes. Despite promises to cut down on waste, the DPJ was unable to cancel most of the projects left over from the previous LDP era, and there are still useless dams in the pipeline and rural governments clamoring for money to build roads that will end up serving no other purpose except to provide a means for locals to leave town for good.