‘Dinosaur Bridge’ leads Tokyo push to ease traffic and boost economy

by Chris Cooper and Kiyotaka Matsuda

Bloomberg

Tokyo’s “Dinosaur Bridge” opens to vehicles Sunday after 10 years of construction, with the world’s largest metropolis hoping it will cut traffic jams that slow vehicles to half of the nation’s average highway speed and boost its economy.

The 2,618-meter span, officially named the Tokyo Gate Bridge, was given its nickname because of its shape, which resembles two dinosaurs facing each other. The government estimates that it will generate ¥19 billion in economic benefits a year by nearly halving journey times to container terminals in Tokyo Bay.

Built at an estimated cost of ¥113 billion, it’s forecast to carry about 32,000 vehicles a day between Tokyo’s eastern fringe and a man-made island where a new container terminal is being built.

The four-lane bridge will be followed by completion of a ring road and two larger loops around the capital. The improvements, spurred by Tokyo’s unsuccessful bid to host the 2016 Olympics, are intended to cut traffic jams in and around the metropolitan area, home to more than 35 million people.

“The new bridge will ease congestion in the whole waterfront area,” said Shinichi Ishii, a senior consultant at Nomura Research Institute Inc. “There is a premium on the value of time in the area, and the economic impact could be two or three times more than the government estimates.”

Officials including transport minister Takeshi Maeda and Tokyo Vice Gov. Kanji Murayama held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday, the metro government’s Bureau of Port and Harbor said.

The bridge will officially open at 10 a.m. Sunday.

As migration from the countryside and smaller cities boosts Tokyo’s population, the city is increasing use of its waterfront by reclaiming land and building islands in Tokyo Bay.

Haneda airport, also built on an artificial island in the bay, opened a fourth runway and began 24-hour operations in 2010.

To expand container trade, Japan has selected the port of Tokyo, the nation’s busiest cargo handler, along with nearby Kawasaki and Yokohama as the main focus for port investment in the region. The new container terminal being built on reclaimed land will be able to handle ships capable of carrying 10,000 cargo containers, according to the Tokyo Port Office.

The Tokyo Gate Bridge will shorten the traveling time from the Shin-Kiba district to the island to 10 minutes from 19 minutes, the office said. It will also give truckers a choice of routes to the main Aomi and Oi container terminals.

The bridge, which weighs about 36,000 tons, was built for less than the original estimate of about ¥140 billion thanks to new techniques and materials, said Koki Hosaka, a civil engineer with the Tokyo port authorities.

It also has been built to withstand an earthquake directly under Tokyo, he said.

The height of the bridge was limited because it is situated on the approach path to Haneda airport, so building a suspension bridge wasn’t an option, Hosaka said. It also needed to be wide and high enough for ships to pass underneath, he said, leading to the final design that has been likened to two dinosaurs facing off.

Tokyo-based Kawada Industries Inc. spent two years building the trusses for the bridge, according to Yoshifumi Kodama, a manager for the project. The company used three cranes on boats to lay the bridge on the support columns, he said.

“It hadn’t been done for a bridge of this type in Japan for 16 years,” said Kodama. “It was very nerve-wracking as we had to do it in one shot.”

It will be followed by the Tokyo ring road, set to be completed by March 2014, and two new larger loop lines that are under construction.

While roads and bridges can help cut traveling time for truckers, the government could do more to help by extending operating hours at container terminals, said Toshio Araki, head of container operations at the Tokyo Trucking Association.

“The problem is with processing at the terminal rather than the roads,” Araki said.

The bridge, which has a walkway for pedestrians, is already helping to spur tourism in the area. Sightseeing boat operator Zeal Cruise Division has almost sold all its seats this month for its 80-minute tours under the bridge.

“The tours have become popular for families with kids,” said Hirano Takumi, Zeal’s chief. “We’re almost completely booked for the opening month and next month. We want overseas tourists to come and see Japan’s new mammoth bridge.”