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Tuesday, March 5, 2002

Ohta perceives costly airport glut, wants governors to assess real needs

Staff writer

OSAKA -- Osaka Gov. Fusae Ohta's proposal for a Kansai Governors Summit with her Hyogo and Kyoto counterparts comes just as the central government is stepping up its call for postponing the second phase of construction at Kansai International Airport and as local pressure to halt the Kobe airport project is proving ineffective.

In late January, Ohta, who entered her third year in office, publicly declared that three airports in the Kansai region would be too much, adding that she hoped to hold a summit to discuss the issue with governors of the two adjacent prefectures.

Ohta's opposition to Kobe airport comes just three years before the domestic-flight airport, to be built on a man-made island off the Kobe port and only about 30 km from the Kansai airport, is to open. The operator of Kansai airport hopes to put its second runway, also under construction, into operation in 2007.

In addition to these two, there is Osaka airport, in Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, for domestic flights.

Kobe airport has been a source of controversy for many years. But Osaka Prefectural Government leaders and local politicians from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have so far refrained from sustained public criticism, even as many in the Kyoto and Osaka business communities voiced doubts about the project and as media polls showed most of the general public in the three prefectures opposed to it.

Now, with central government leaders -- including Chikage Ogi, minister of land, transport and infrastructure, and powerful LDP lawmakers like Hiromu Nonaka, representing Kyoto Prefecture -- questioning the need for three Kansai-area airports, pressure is on Kansai to reconsider which projects are necessary.

Over the past year, the Finance Ministry in particular has questioned the need for a second runway at Kansai airport and a new Kobe airport, forcing Ohta and local business officials to defend the Kansai airport project and struggle to secure continued financial support from the central government.

"As flights to Kansai airport have decreased, the central government has become more concerned about publicly financing a second runway. Many in the Osaka business community are angry at Kobe for continuing with its airport project despite questions over its necessity and the dire economic situation surrounding Kansai airport," a Kansai Economic Federation official said, speaking anonymously.

Many in the local Kansai foreign community support the idea of a governor's conference as well.

"You should consider a meeting with other local governors to resolve some of the outstanding issues of local importance. It's important that the prefectures of Kansai work together and review projects, deciding which ones benefit the region as a whole," said U.S. Consul General Robert Ludan at a recent meeting of Kansai consul generals and Hyogo prefectural and Kobe municipal officials.

The foreign business community here has long suggested that Kansai authorities should focus more on improving Kansai airport and lower its high landing fees, which are believed to have alienated many airlines.

Hyogo Prefecture has not yet officially responded to Ohta's call for a meeting. Kobe said that its planned airport is a necessary infrastructure project and that it will compliment, not detract from, business at Kansai International Airport.

No meeting between the three governors is possible until after the Kyoto gubernatorial election takes place in April. However, bureaucrats in all three prefectures are holding discussions on the possibility of such a summit.

"There are discussions with Hyogo and Osaka Prefecture officials on what kind of a meeting between the three governors might be held. Talks focus on what issues might be on the agenda of such a meeting, and the airport issue is one of the topics that has been raised," said Hajime Yamauchi, a spokesman for Kyoto Prefecture.

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