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Our menacing infrastructure

“Expressway tunnels as well as other infrastructure throughout Japan are nearing the crisis stage,” warns a university professor who is a member of an advisory body for the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

Among the repercussions of the Dec. 2 ceiling collapse in the Sasago Tunnel on the Chuo Expressway (Yamanashi Prefecture) — the accident crushed three motor vehicles and killed nine people — is the ministry’s order to carry out emergency checks of all similar tunnels in Japan.

Besides tunnels, other structures and facilities such as expressways, ordinary highways and bridges as well as railways, city water facilities and sewerage are in a state of extreme decay as they near the limits of the useful life.

Behind this situation are two main factors: the infrastructure ministry’s haphazard way of supervising and maintaining infrastructure and the profiteering by companies operating expressways and other infrastructure facilities and structures.

A newspaper reporter covering the ministry attributes the Sasago Tunnel disaster to a failure of the 2005 privatization of the four public corporations that built and operated expressways. Lawmakers with a stake in road construction and bureaucrats of the ministry’s Road Bureau gutted the privatization proposal.

As part of the privatization, Japan Highway Public Corporation was divided into three companies — East, Central and West Nippon Expressway Companies. Around them, organizations enjoying vested rights and interests have multiplied.

Take, for example, Central Nippon Highway Engineering Tokyo Co. (HE Tokyo), which the police searched after the Sasago Tunnel accident. This is a family company of Central Nippon Expressway (NEXCO Central). Four of its five board members, including the chief executive, are former officials of the parent company.

HE Tokyo has been awarded various contracts from NEXCO Central but none of them through public bidding. About 84 percent of HE Tokyo’s annual revenue of ¥14.8 billion has come from contracts with NEXCO Central.

An official of a road inspection company said: “Checks done by a family company of an expressway company cannot be trusted. Because family companies monopolize inspection of expressways, there is no room for companies like us to crack the door open to bid for the work.”

NEXCO Central has five subsidiaries engaged in maintenance of expressways. Of some ¥600 billion that the parent company earned from expressway tolls in fiscal 2011, ¥46.5 billion was passed on to the five subsidiaries. The situation is no different for the two other regional expressway companies — NEXCO East and West.

The ministry cannot shed its responsibility for having gutted the privatization proposal. The aforementioned university professor blames the infrastructure ministry for concentrating on building new infrastructure while putting maintenance on the back burner.

In 2009 it was learned that Road Management Technology Center, which had been entrusted by the ministry with the task of discovering underground sinkholes that might cause road surfaces to cave in, had repeatedly performed shoddy work. The center was abolished, but chief executive Nobuhiko Sato, who had formerly headed the ministry’s Road Bureau, landed a new job as head of the Japan Tunneling Association, which is supposed to be in charge of ensuring tunnel safety.

The fundamental cause of decay is the deterioration of construction materials in infrastructure that passes or approach the end of their useful life. According to the aforementioned university professor, wear and tear is more pronounced these days on expressways because far more vehicles than estimated at construction now use them.

The most dangerous expressway is the Shuto Expressway, which is actually a network of expressways covering the greater Tokyo area. About 30 percent of the 300-km network was built more than 40 years ago. A survey conducted in 2009 found some 97,000 places, including vertical support columns for elevated expressways, where reinforcement was needed because of cracks in concrete.

An expert who has inspected Shuto Expressway said: “Concrete portions have deteriorated beyond imagination. Major repairs or even outright rebuilding must be considered for some places.

Bridges are also in danger. Of the more than 150,000 bridges nationwide that are at least 15 meters long, those built during the years of rapid economic growth are coming close to the end of their useful life. Although no bridges have experienced a sudden collapse, many have been closed to traffic because they could not be rebuilt or replaced. This again casts doubt on the infrastructure ministry’s ability to carry out proper maintenance.

Ordinary roads at ground level are in danger of sudden cave-ins because, in many cases, large ferroconcrete sewer pipes run below them. These pipes are susceptible to erosion by gases that form inside them. The gases can make holes in the tops of pipes, allowing sewage to gush out of them, and creating sinkholes.

A journalist well versed in railway technology warns that the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines for superexpress trains are especially dangerous because most segments of the lines are more than 40 years old.

The Tokaido section was constructed in a hurry for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. About 40 percent of it runs on artificially elevated ground, and some parts run above active geological faults.

As for the Sanyo section, tunnels account for 280 kilometers or nearly half of the entire section. Around the year 2000, concrete began peeling off tunnel walls because sea sand had been mixed with cement when the tunnels were built. West Japan Railway Co., the operator of the Sanyo line, examined all tunnels and undertook repair work, but concrete is still peeling. Theoretically it is impossible to replace the concrete in question.

Both Central Railway Co., which is managing the Tokaido section, and West Japan Railway Co. have just undertaken symptomatic remedies to cope with the weaknesses found in their superexpress train facilities. They have not been able to take fundamental measures because of the estimated high costs and possible interruptions of train service.

Other infrastructure and facilities built during the period of rapid economic expansion, such as breakwater structures, ports and harbors, and underground gasoline tanks, are also in danger.

The Abe administration should give top priority to solving problems related to the nation’s decaying infrastructure. The infrastructure ministry and private enterprises must not be allowed to keep benefiting from their vested interests.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the January issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.