Kobe airport opponents call for plebiscite

by Eric Johnston

Staff writer

KOBE — As the controversial Kobe airport project moves closer to reality, city assembly members and local activists opposed to the plan are preparing a petition drive this summer calling for a plebiscite on the issue.

“The plebiscite may be our last chance to block the airport, because construction is scheduled to begin next year,” said Tomio Awahara, a city assembly member, whose election promise was to stop the airport.

Calls for a plebiscite have grown louder over the past few weeks because of Kobe’s worsening financial situation. At the end of March, the city announced that for fiscal 1998, the budget was 865.5 billion yen, a 9.3 percent decrease from the previous year.

More worrisome is the growing long-term debt. Kobe now faces repayment of nearly 3 trillion yen, mostly in the form of outstanding municipal bonds, for its various projects. “We are in a very dangerous situation,” Awahara said. “Projects like Port Island’s first phase are losing money, but repayment for the bonds issued for its construction is coming due.

“At the same time, the city wants to issue an additional 285 billion yen in bonds for the airport, most of which would probably have to be repaid within 10 years. This would be impossible given the current state of the economy,” he said.

Total construction costs are expected to top 300 billion yen. But Awahara says that does not include the transportation infrastructure to and from the island. “The simple fact is that no one knows how much the related costs will be. There have been reports that costs related to Kansai International Airport totaled 4 trillion yen. Osaka Prefecture is all but bankrupt as a result, and, unless we stop the airport, Kobe will go bankrupt as well,” Awahara said.

An environmental study is under way to assess potential damage to the surrounding bay from the construction of a man-made island for the airport. Kobe airport is to be located about 8 km from Kobe’s Sannomiya Station. Plans call for one 2,500-meter runway, handling about 60 takeoffs and landings daily. The city expects 3.4 million passengers in the airport’s first year of operation.

City officials say the environmental assessment will probably be finished by September. A separate assessment on the impact of just the airport itself was completed last year, and the Environmental Agency approved the construction.

If things proceed as planned, following the assessment, permission to build the island will be granted soon afterward. The municipal assembly would then formally vote on the issue. From there it would go to the Transport Ministry, which is responsible for final approval. “At this point, of the 71 assembly members, only 19 are against the airport. Our aim is to collect enough signatures to introduce a plebiscite before the assembly gives its approval, so that we can send a clear message that the airport is not needed,” Awahara said.

By law, in order to introduce a bill on a plebiscite to a local assembly, at least 2 percent of eligible voters must show they want it. However, Awahara says he feels that at least 300,000 signatures, or slightly more than one-third of eligible voters, will be gathered in order to get the assembly to approve a plebiscite quickly.