One of the unfortunate side effects of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s ongoing financial and managerial problems is that Tokyo’s utility lines may never get buried. The Tokyo metropolitan government started burying lines in Tokyo in 1986, as part of the city’s improved disaster-prevention measures.

Tepco and other private companies managing power lines were expected to bear some of the expense. Now, however, as problems continue with the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, Tepco has notified the Tokyo government it may no longer be able to bear the cost.

Utility poles are some of the most fragile infrastructure. They are easily damaged, making roads immediately difficult or impassable. Overhead power lines carry high voltage that can be extremely dangerous and cause fires, one of the most serious postquake dangers.

In some areas of the country, overhead lines may be more cost-efficient and almost as safe. But in densely populated areas like Tokyo, burying power lines will ensure that in any emergency, Tokyo’s roads will not block emergency and rescue operations.

Tokyo is far behind other world cities in this effort. According to data released by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, almost 100 percent of roads in London and Paris, 98 percent in Berlin and 83 percent in New York are free of utility poles.

Only 30 percent of Tokyo’s 2,300 kilometers of highways have had their power lines removed and buried. For roads inside Tokyo’s 23 wards, however, the ratio drops to just 7 percent. That means an earthquake could virtually strangle Tokyo roads.

Burying power lines is neither easy nor cheap, however. Because water and gas pipes must first be transferred, the total cost can rise to ¥600 million per kilometer. Maintenance of underground lines is also more expensive than overhead lines, especially as the system ages.

However, no one will complain about these costs after a disaster; they will be pleased that the roads are free of fallen utility poles and open for important operations.

Although the project of burying lines is now likely to bog down, the Tokyo metropolitan government, together with Tepco, and other companies needs to be sure that progress continues.

If there is a major earthquake in the Tokyo area, buried utility lines will help ensure safety and a quicker recovery. Adequate preparation for future disasters is always expensive, but as the Tohoku disasters have shown, it is always worth it.

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