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Monday, Jan. 14, 2002

Kawasaki to get east-west line -- but at what cost?


Staff writer

A 36-year-old plan to build a subway running east and west in Kawasaki finally appears to be moving forward, drawing praise from residents along the proposed route but criticism from opponents for imposing a huge drain on the city's finances.

According to the plan originally devised in 1966, the 22-km subway will run across the city from the hilly residential area in the west to the industrial area in the east facing Tokyo Bay. The line, to be operated by the city, will start at the Odakyu Line's Shinyurigaoka Station in Aso Ward at one end and JR Kawasaki Station in Kawasaki Ward at the other.

The plan picked up steam in May when the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry gave the go-ahead for construction of 70 percent of the line from Shinyurigaoka to Motosumiyoshi Station on the Tokyu Toyoko Line. And then Takao Abe, a former Hosei University professor and an expert on city planning, was elected mayor in October after pledging to get the project under way.

The city hopes to break ground in fiscal 2003, with the first phase up and running in 2011 at the earliest. Passenger numbers are projected at 300,000 a day.

The city claims the subway will provide a substantial improvement in public transportation.

"The railway will be a new artery of the city," says Norikazu Honjo of Kawasaki's railways construction headquarters.

There are seven railways running north-south through the city, : the Odakyu, Tokyu Denentoshi, Tokyu Toyoko, Keihin Kyuko, and the JR Keihin Tohoku, Tokaido and Yokosuka, lines. but only one -- the JR Nanbu Line -- runs east-west. Honjo says Kawasaki's denizens have been waiting a long time for the subway. In 1996, a petition for its construction was submitted to the municipal assembly, signed by 40,000 citizens of Miyamae Ward in the western part of the city.

"There are about 400,000 citizens, a third of Kawasaki's population, living in 'inconvenient transportation areas,' " said Masayoshi Iizuka, a Democratic Party of Japan member in the Kawasaki Municipal Assembly. The city defines "inconvenient areas" as those more than 750 meters from the nearest station.

In December, Kawasaki held meetings to explain the subway project to residents along the proposed line. After listening to residents' opinions on the project's impact, the city plans to decide on a detailed construction plan as early as fall 2003.

"We have to take roundabout routes to reach (major districts in the city). I want the city to build the subway as soon as possible," said a resident of Aso Ward in a Dec. 25 public meeting.

According to the city, it will take 26 minutes from Shinyurigaoka to Kawasaki via the planned subway, a trip that today takes 41 minutes.

But opposition to the costly project is strong among many Kawasaki citizens. According to a survey by the Mainichi Shimbun in October, 30 percent of the people polled said they want the project either reviewed or canceled, whereas only 23 percent expressed support.

"I am worried that such a big construction project is to be implemented while (the city) faces financial difficulties," said a woman who gave her name as Sekine during the Aso Ward meeting.

The city estimates that construction of the entire line will cost 715.6 billion yen, 44 percent of which will be covered by the city's general account, 22 percent by subsidies from the national government, and 34 percent through bonds issued by the city's transportation bureau.

During the subway's 41-year construction and redemption periods, the effective burden on Kawasaki's general account will peak at 8.1 billion yen a year, or 6,200 yen per resident, according to the municipal government.

But a local citizens' group that keeps a watch on the city administration says such figures are misleading because they do not take into account the cost of the city-issued bonds: If such factors are included, the annual maximum burden on each resident could go as high as 17,800 yen.

The city insists that such costs are not included because they are to be covered by revenues from passenger fares. It forecasts that the subway will start to make a profit in about 30 years.

However, Kunio Okuda, a representative of the citizens' group and a licensed tax accountant, says the city is overly optimistic in its passenger projections.

"The city needs to review the accuracy of its estimate by looking at the situations of other (municipally run) subways around the country," he says.

The city has calculated passenger demand with a method based on day-to-day movement of the city's population surveyed by the national census, Okuda says. Before Yokohama opened a new section of its subway in 1999, it projected passenger demand at 70,000 riders a day based on the same method, but the actual number has been only around 40,000, according to Okuda.

Takayoshi Igarashi, a professor at Hosei University and a specialist on public works projects, also says Kawasaki is overestimating demand. People may continue to use buses, and the city isn't taking into account the planned construction of a new line in the Yokohama municipal subway system, which will partly run parallel to the Kawasaki subway, he says.

According to a forecast by Okuda's group, the Kawasaki subway cannot turn a profit unless the number of passengers reaches two-thirds of the city's estimate.

Opponents say the project could wreck havoc on the city's financial situation, which has been deteriorating since the early 1990s. The amount of outstanding bonds issued by Kawasaki, whose annual budget is about 500 billion yen, has reached 14.47 trillion yen.

Furthermore, the critics say the need for a subway running east-west has dwindled since the project was initially devised in the nation's rapid-growth era of the 1960s. The city explains that the project was on the back burner as priority was placed on countering industrial pollution that became a serious issue in the 1970s.

Although at that time there were a large number of residents commuting to the industrial areas near the bay, critics argue that these days most citizens in the city's west work, study and shop in Tokyo's Shinjuku and Shibuya districts.

Mayor Abe told the municipal assembly in December that he will move ahead with the project while trying to reduce construction costs.

"The most important task is to review passenger demand estimates and to cut costs, in order to make the railway efficient and profitable," Abe said. In a news conference on Jan. 4, the mayor also said he is planning to create a project team with 10 representatives from local citizens and a like number of experts.

Hosei professor Igarashi says many municipally operated subways are losing money because their passenger estimates were wrong, including the Oedo Line opened by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 2000.

Some Kawasaki citizens have requested that instead of building a costly subway, the city improve its community-based bus services.

Okuda says his group will continue to urge the city to reconsider the project. But if the subway is to be built as planned, he says, at least its construction method should be changed to cut costs. For example, cheaper magnetically levitated cars like the ones on the Oedo Line in Tokyo should be utilized.

Hosei professor Igarashi terms the project as a legacy of the past, when municipalities took it for granted that local industries and population would continue to grow.

"The subway will surely be convenient," Igarashi says, "but (the problem is) how much money is spent to buy that convenience."



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