OTHERWISE, PUTTING LID ON PORK BARREL

Ogi to continue fight for Kobe airport

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Chikage Ogi survived Monday’s Cabinet reshuffle as minister of land, infrastructure and transport, extending a stint that began in July 2000 when she was first appointed to the post by then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

Her image is considered squeaky clean and not vulnerable to vested interests affiliated with members of the Liberal Democratic Party. LDP members often pressure the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, which controls 80 percent of the public works budget, to cater to interests in their home constituencies.

But ironically, even Ogi seems to have one local pet project she is pushing — an airport currently under construction 9 km from the center of Kobe, her hometown.

“If I can create a Kobe airport that can replace Itami airport (bordering Osaka and Hyogo prefectures), I want to do so even if it involves risking my political career,” said the New Conservative Party member, who was elected from an Upper House proportional representation constituency.

“As someone born in Kobe, I want an airport built deserving of Kobe.”

Ogi also said the Kobe airport should eventually be designated a No. 1-Class airport, a strategic hub handling international flights whose operations are funded by the national government. It would thus mirror Kansai International Airport off nearby Osaka, the ailing main international airport in the region.

Itami airport should lose this status, she added.

On road building, she said expressway projects should be financed by available taxpayers’ funds, not through the creation of new debts.

Thus far, nearly all expressways have been funded by loans that must be paid back from tollway charges levied on motorists.

An expert panel under the prime minister wants the current financing system, with its snowballing debts, scrapped and the national and local governments to bear all costs of any new expressways.

“It is only natural that the state builds all the roads,” Ogi said.

A number of difficult issues lie ahead as Ogi enters her second term as land minister.

Support is weakening among her party colleagues, while lawmakers seeking to protect their vested interests are expected to resist change.

Takeshi Noda, who replaced Ogi as NCP president a year ago, told Kyodo News in an interview Tuesday that he had asked Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, through LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki, to give Ogi’s Cabinet portfolio to Kiichi Inoue, the NCP policy chief. Koizumi rejected the request.

“I myself told (the prime minister) that my term has gotten long, and there are lots of other people suitable for the position,” Ogi said.

But she said she accepted her reappointment because Koizumi assured her that “everybody” approved it, including Noda and the top five LDP executives.