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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Push to replace Tokyo's aging expressways with tunnel routes revived


Special to The Japan Times

A once-shelved project to bury Tokyo's expressway network, which is now aging, deep underground is finding new life, in part because of last year's devastating Tohoku quake and tsunami.

News photo
Out of sight: Central Tokyo would take on a new look if the Metropolitan Expressway network is buried underground. SUGINAMI ROTARY CLUB
News photo

The "Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway Renewal Plan" was initially pushed by entrepreneurs six years ago but is now on the official agenda for serious debate at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

The ministry is planning to set up an advisory panel to examine the feasibility of burying the elevated sections in the heart of Tokyo, officially called the Inner Circular Route. Once the panel, to be led by political commentator Hisayuki Miyake, submits a recommendation by summer, the ministry will request more funding for the next fiscal year to conduct further research, sources said.

The elevated sections, stretching 32.5 km, were built between 1962 and 1967 when Japan was in the bloom of frenetic economic growth, peaking with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Today, the spider-weblike Metropolitan Expressway measures 300 km and is still being extended. But some 30 percent of the total, or about 90 km, was built 40 years ago or more. Another 16 percent of the network is between 30 and 40 years old.

The expressway renewal plan, originally the brainchild of a small group of young entrepreneurs and owners of midsize businesses, was later adopted by a consortium of Tokyo's key Rotary Clubs as official policy in spring 2009.

The consortium's draft plan features the application of a 2001 legislative framework for "deep underground" utilization for public works as well as the so-called private finance initiative, which would not count on government coffers to pay for the project.

According to the draft proposal, the existing elevated Inner Circular Route would be buried 60 meters down. By applying the deep underground utilization law to this major project, there would be no need to worry about the huge cost of procuring land.

According to an estimate for the project, consigned to a Tokyo construction consultancy, the total construction cost would be approximately ¥4.6 trillion, including the cost of dismantling the existing structures on the surface, and would take only six years to complete.

If the private finance initiative, or PFI, is used, the project would be financed 100 percent by the private sector. The invested capital would be redeemed in 33 to 45 years, depending on the level of interest rates.

The plan has been revived in a way to incorporate another plan to put a 2-km section of the expressway running above Nihonbashi Bridge, one of Tokyo's historical landmarks, underground. Nihonbashi Bridge was the starting point for five major trunk roads in the Edo Period.

Prompted by a campaign initiated by residents and businesses in the neighborhood, a government advisory panel proposed the plan in fall 2006 to then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. But it was shelved due chiefly to the huge cost — estimated at ¥400 billion to ¥500 billion.

The March 11 quake and tsunami helped revive the project.

According to Yoshitaka Ohashi, a senior leader of the Rotary Club in Suginami Ward and one of the original promoters of the project, last year's disasters have raised public concerns about how resistant the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway is to earthquakes.

"The project plan originated from our concerns about the environmental hazards, the chronic traffic congestion causing immense negative repercussions on the national economy, and the preservation of Tokyo's scenic beauty," Ohashi said. "Like it or not, the March 11 earthquake and tsunami added a decisive spur to the revival of our dream project."

Last fall, Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Jin Matsubara, a former senior vice transport minister, led informal meetings with ministry officials and key members of Tokyo Rotary Clubs to study the feasibility of dismantling the old expressways and building new ones underground.

This also helped the ministry to take the project seriously, sources say. Matsubara is now chairman of the National Public Safety Commission.

According to the infrastructure ministry, a stricter quake-proof regulation was imposed on elevated highways and expressways in the wake of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake that devastated Kobe. The Metropolitan Expressway network poses no safety worries even if a magnitude 7 earthquake should hit central Tokyo, according to the ministry.

On the other hand, Metropolitan Express Co., operator of Tokyo's expressway network, admits piecemeal repairs on portions of the network aren't enough to guarantee their safety.

The firm organized a panel of experts earlier this month to develop recommendations for a long-term repair plan.

Normally, it takes years for the government to forge a national consensus on how to deal with this kind of project and many more years to make it a reality.

But now that addressing the decayed portions of the network has become a pressing issue, a senior official said the infrastructure ministry "will act deliberately with strong determination to materialize the project."



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