Systematize infrastructure repairs

Japan’s infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, tunnels, city water systems and sewer systems, were built mainly during the high economic growth period of the 1960s and ’70s. Much of this infrastructure is nearing the generally accepted useful life of 50 years or has passed it. Systematic repair or replacement work is indispensable for preventing fatal accidents. The central and local governments must work out plans to effectively meet this need.

How to solve the problems of Tokyo’s elevated metropolitan roadway will provide knowledge on how to deal with expressways in other parts of Japan facing similar problems. The roughly 300-km Shuto Expressway was built at a feverish pace for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. More than 50 years have passed since the first sections opened. Cracks and other damage have been detected at some 100,000 places in the Shuto system. An estimated ¥1.2 trillion will be needed for repairs or replacement. The six oldest routes will require an estimated ¥910 billion in repair and replacement work, which must be done soon.

Three ideas have been floated on the question of how to raise the necessary funds for repair or replacement work on the Shuto Expressway. One would be to prolong the period in which users pay expressway tolls. Currently the period is to end in 2050. The other two ideas would be to increase tolls and/or to have the central and local governments concerned shoulder the costs.

In view of the financial condition of the public sector and the possible impact on economic activity, prolonging the period for collecting expressway tolls may be the realistic way to go.

But the prerequisite for adopting this idea is to present detailed timelines for repair and replacement work on the Shuto Expressway. It also may be necessary to change some routes or put some sections underground in order to improve Tokyo’s landscape.

In coping with aging infrastructure, the central and local governments should drop the practice of carrying out repairs only after structures appear to have developed problems. They should switch to a preventive maintenance practice that entails making systematic repairs in accordance with plans worked out in advance.

It would be possible to determine the most efficient schedule for repair or replacement work by examining the records of inspections and repairs of individual structures.

The land and infrastructure ministry is asking local governments to write preventive maintenance plans for such facilities as bridges and sewer systems. Such plans should be made comprehensive to cover all facilities and structures, including buildings and dams. That would make it possible to spread out scheduled repair or replacement work, thus helping to avoid sudden increases in demand for needed funding.

The central and local governments should regularly set aside funds for future repairs and replacement, and strictly review public works projects with an eye on eliminating unnecessary projects to free up funds for essential items.