Tunnel never had full check before collapse

Roof too high for hammer tests, claims Chuo operator


The operator of the Chuo Expressway neglected to conduct full checks on the Sasago Tunnel, which suffered a deadly collapse Sunday, according to sources.

Central Nippon Expressway Co. failed to carry out hammering tests to examine internal corrosion because of the height of the roof of the tunnel, which is in Yamanashi Prefecture, they said. It just conducted visual checks.

The operator has conducted hammering tests on the four other tunnels of the same type under its management.

Ceiling panels suspended in the Sasago Tunnel fell to the road Sunday, killing nine people in three vehicles.

The firm said it didn’t conduct hammering tests because the panels were over 5 meters from the ceiling of the tunnel.

No bolts or hanger rods for ceiling panels were replaced since the tunnel opened in 1977.

Police believe the collapse was caused by bolt corrosion and the degeneration of concrete and adhesive. Hanger rods for the panels fell onto the road with some anchor bolts used to connect the rods to the tunnel roof.

The deadly collapse is raising calls for more spending on Japan’s aging infrastructure, but the country might simply not have the money.

Much more of the transportation network may require refurbishing after years of spending cuts that starved projects of funding, including for needed basic maintenance.

It was only last month that the infrastructure ministry, which is in charge of land and roads, joined with three government highway operators in forming a panel on how to handle problems of deteriorating expressways and tunnels.

Public works spending once was the lifeblood of the Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled for most of the postwar era, though it was ousted by the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009.

The government created huge coastal reclamation projects, bullet train lines and other vital infrastructure, as well as notorious “bridges to nowhere.”

Political reforms beginning in the early 2000s focused on cutting spending on public works, but they failed to differentiate between projects that contributed to efficiency and competitiveness and those that did not, said Masahiro Matsumura, a professor of politics at St. Andrews University in Osaka.

“Basically, we didn’t spend enough on renovating our decaying water pipes, bridges and tunnels. We didn’t spend enough on public infrastructure,” he said.

Japan, however, has other expensive needs, even as it tries to cope with massive debt. Rebuilding from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and ensuing nuclear disaster, is diverting attention and resources from such wider issues.

LDP chief Shinzo Abe has made boosting public spending a key platform of his campaign for the Dec. 16 Lower House poll. He accuses Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of not doing enough to stimulate the economy after two decades of stagnation.

But what worked decades ago in an era of fast growth and ample tax revenues may not have the same impact in today’s fast-aging Japan, especially when the economy is suffering from the global crisis, says Andrew DeWit, a professor at Tokyo’s Rikkyo University. “Now you have this tunnel that fell apart. That has reignited enthusiasm for construction,” he said. “The question is, do they have the money to spend on that?”