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In an apparent effort to recapture political initiative, the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry unveiled policies Thursday to review public works projects, including the suspension of any new feasibility studies for large-scale dams.

The ministry compiled the policy paper amid rising public criticism of huge public works projects, which have cornered the central and many local governments into financial difficulties throughout the 1990s.

The ministry had been rushing to hammer out its own review policies while a key advisory panel to the prime minister released the same day a set of economic reform proposals, including drastic cuts in public works.

In the policy paper, the ministry announced that it will shift its urban development focus from new projects to improvement of existing urban projects. The ministry will also curb construction of new local ports as well as local airports except for those for remote islands, the paper says.

The land ministry also officially admitted that it is “difficult” to construct the planned expressway routes totaling 11,520 km under the current construction scheme, now all financed by loans, bonds and revenues from existing toll expressways.

But the ministry also stressed it is possible to finish repaying debts for the current authorized construction plans of 9,324 km, if the government continues to annually spend 300 billion yen from taxpayers’ money over 50 years.

During a news conference, Chikage Ogi, land minister and president of the New Conservative Party, brushed aside an idea to privatize Japan Highway Public Corp., a ministry-affiliated body that is tasked with constructing toll expressways and is now saddled with increasing debts currently totaling 26 trillion yen.

“I don’t think anybody in the private sector would be willing to take over the debts,” she said.

As for a review of gasoline and vehicle tax revenues now solely earmarked for road construction, the ministry did not address any new proposals and only stressed that the tax burdens should basically be borne by those who receive the benefits.

In the policy paper, the land ministry also announced it will review and revise all of its midterm sector-by-sector public works investment plans by the end of this fiscal year.

The midterm plans, which include a five-year road construction plan, a seven-year flood control plan and a seven-year port construction plan, have often been criticized as the cause of inflexible, fixed budget allocations.

Until now, the ministry’s bureaus have drawn up plans covering their respective territories and have had little policy coordination, according to ministry officials.

Thus, the portion of the budget allocated to each public works category — such as roads, flood control, housing and ports and airports — remained almost unchanged over the past two decades despite drastically changing social needs.

The land ministry will seek “public involvement ” in reviewing those plans, listening to opinions of local government leaders and the general public, the ministry said.

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