What to do with public works projects has become a key issue to be addressed in the Dec. 16 Lower House election. On Sunday, just two days before the election campaign officially kicked off, the problem of Japan’s aging infrastructure was highlighted when a portion of the Sasago Tunnel on the Chuo Expressway collapsed, crushing three vehicles and killing nine people. The tunnel opened for use in 1977.
A large part of Japan’s infrastructure was built during its high economic growth period. Therefore, it is imperative to check the safety of aging infrastructure, including railway tracks, roads, bridges, tunnels and river banks, and carry out necessary repairs.
In the wake of the devastation of the Pacific coastal area of the Tohoku region by the 3/11 disasters and in light of the likelihood that Japan will experience massive earthquakes and tsunami in the future, the central and local governments must urgently take measures to make infrastructure resilient to such disasters. But in doing so, wasteful use of public money must be avoided.
The Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009 with the slogan “from concrete to humans.” It called for less spending on public works projects and more spending that would directly help to improve people’s lives. Under the DPJ government, spending on public works projects decreased by more than 30 percent.
But the DPJ’s stance is contradictory. It has decided to restart construction of Yanba Dam, whose usefulness has been questioned, and has approved the start of construction on new Shinkansen lines in Hokkaido, Hokuriku and Nagasaki. It also failed to put a brake on the start of new road construction.
While it is important that money for public works projects be used efficiently, the DPJ government failed to give priorities to projects that are really necessary. For example, with regard to new road construction, “research” funds were allocated. After the research phase is over, it is suspected that a large amount of money will go toward road construction itself.
It may not be farfetched to say that the DPJ government has failed to free itself from the tendency of showering money on its constituencies, a diehard evil in Japanese politics.
In the campaign for the Lower House election, the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito are calling for spending ¥200 trillion and ¥100 trillion, respectively, on public works projects over the next 10 years to strengthen Japan’s resilience to massive disasters. But the possibility cannot be ruled out that these proposals are being offered as bait to woo voters.
It is essential to properly maintain infrastructure and to make important facilities quake-proof. Irrespective of election timetables, public money for these activities must be appropriated in a consistent manner while their effectiveness is strictly checked. The political use of public works as pork-barrel projects must be prevented.