Tunnel disaster sounds global investment warning

by Hiroshi Hiyama

AFP-JIJI

The deadly Sasago Tunnel collapse Dec. 2 in Yamanashi Prefecture should serve as a wake-up call for developed nations whose aging infrastructure is in dire need of updating, experts say.

Trillions of dollars need to be spent around the globe just to maintain current levels of safety, and fiscal belt-tightening is pushing vital repairs dangerously down the priority list, they warn.

“Maintenance work is often neglected because you cannot easily see the urgent need for it,” said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

In the Sasago accident, nine people were killed when scores of concrete ceiling panels crashed onto three vehicles, setting at least one ablaze.

The cause of the accident hasn’t been determined yet, but an initial probe pointed to decay in the fixtures that were holding the panels — which weigh more than a ton each — to the roof of the 35-year-old tunnel.

The government ordered immediate inspections of all structures with the same design, while police opened a criminal investigation into possible negligence.

The incident sent jitters through Japan, which experienced a huge infrastructure boom following its defeat in World War II.

At least 8 percent of the nation’s 155,000 major bridges are older than 50 years, according to the infrastructure ministry. By 2030, more than half will be at least half a century old.

The ministry estimates it needs to spend ¥190 trillion over the next five decades just to maintain the safety of the infrastructure it already has.

But with a national debt more than double GDP, which the shrinking workforce will have a tough time tackling, finding new cash won’t be easy.

The Sasago Tunnel collapse was not the first time a lack of investment has caused problems.

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, an eight-lane, 33-meter-high bridge collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145.

Dilapidated power lines were among the major causes of Australia’s 2009 Black Saturday wildfires that killed 173 people.

In 2006, a huge summertime blackout in New York was blamed on a badly maintained power grid.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $2.2 trillion is needed over the next decade simply to prevent resources such as bridges, roads, waterways and power cables from deteriorating.

But under current plans, the U.S. government will spend less than half that amount and, with Washington lawmakers seeking to avoid the looming “fiscal cliff,” the federal investment budget could be cut further.

Engineers Australia, an infrastructure lobby group, estimates that years of neglect have left the vast and sparsely populated country with an investment shortfall of 700 billion Australian dollars ($732 billion).

Rod Eddington, chairman of Infrastructure Australia, has warned that even though upgrades are expensive, the status quo is not an option.

“The results of not doing enough are traffic congestion, poor access to our export gateways, missed economic opportunities and lower quality of life,” Eddington said in a report in June.

London’s transport plans for this year’s Olympic Games were thrown into disarray when one of the main arteries linking Heathrow Airport and the capital had to be closed in December 2011 for emergency repairs.

Cables holding together the concrete Hammersmith Flyover, built in the 1960s, had been weakened by a steady seepage of saltwater, a problem that needed five months of traffic-disrupting work to fix.

Civil structural engineer Aleksandar Pavic said with only periodic inspections, Britain is constantly taken by surprise when its infrastructure — some of which dates to the 19th century — suddenly fails.

“We don’t know what our structures are doing,” said Pavic, a professor of vibration engineering at the University of Sheffield.

“We don’t understand what is actually happening on them, that’s why things are falling apart, quite unexpectedly,” he said, adding modern monitoring systems could give a much better picture.

Dai-ichi Life economist Nagahama said strong political will is necessary if sufficient money is ever going to be put aside for much-needed updates and maintenance.

“The recent tunnel accident may be the trigger that improves public awareness about the issue and presses authorities” to do something, he said.