Some politicians look for ways to justify diverting certain portions of the budget earmarked for improvement of roads and bridges to other purposes. This undermining of social overhead capital by politicians serves as a warning about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policy of promoting public works projects in a bid to reinforce and safeguard decaying infrastructure throughout the county.

In his 2010 book titled “Too Big to Fall: America’s Falling Infrastructure and the Way Forward,” written after a number of roads and bridges collapsed in the United States in the 2000s, Barry R. LePatner argues that U.S. social overhead capital as a whole faces a critical danger as many politicians seek to garner votes in their constituencies by promising new construction projects, rather than undertake much-needed repair of existing structures.

In Japan, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party plans to submit to the current session of the Diet a bill to reinforce the nation’s infrastructure. On Jan. 11, the government adopted an emergency economic stimulus package totaling ¥20.2 trillion, including ¥3.8 trillion for making the country resilient to natural calamities.

Meanwhile, for the third supplementary budget for fiscal 2012, the government will issue construction bonds totaling ¥5.52 trillion. Taro Aso, finance minister and concurrently deputy prime minister, hinted at more spending in the fiscal 2013 budget to repair and maintain bridges, tunnels, roads and other infrastructure.

In this connection, he pointed to the collapse of a portion of the ceiling of the Sasago Tunnel of the Chuo Expressway in Yamanashi Prefecture on Dec. 2, which crushed several motor vehicles and killed nine people.

More than 40 percent of about 10,300 tunnels and some 40 percent of the 678,000 bridges throughout the country are already at least 30 years old. Their useful life of service is said to be 40 to 50 years.

The idea of checking and repairing existing infrastructure is right, but will funds budgeted for that purpose actually be used for repair and maintenance? This question has become all the more important because Aso failed to give a clear answer when a reporter asked what percentage of the public works budget will go toward repair and maintenance of aging facilities.

In “Too Big to Fall,” LePatner blames American lawmakers for their tendency to use public funds to build new roads and bridges despite warnings that antiquated facilities badly need maintenance. Such a failure, he asserts, is the cause of a freeway bridge collapse over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis (August 2007) that killed 13 people and injured 145 others.

With Japan’s Upper House election set for this coming summer, many Japanese politicians may well pledge construction of new roads, bridges and other structures to attract more votes rather than promise to repair or reinforce existing structures.

Meanwhile, it is feared that a fight will develop over the allocation of money for infrastructural reinforcement between Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Akihiro Ota and Keiji Furuya, state minister in charge of making the nation resilient to natural disasters.

The Komeito party, the current coalition government’s junior partner (which Ota once led), wants to spend money for many small projects because the party has traditionally received support from “the weak” in local communities.

On the other hand, the Liberal Democratic Party, which Furuya belongs to, favors large-scale construction projects because the LDP’s strong support base is the construction industry, which includes general contractors. It is feared that differences between Ota and Furuya might develop into a feud over funds.

Another problem with infrastructure reinforcement as envisaged by Abe and his lieutenants is that it does not take into account low economic growth due to the dwindling number of children and the rapid aging of the population.

The U.S. can afford to build new structures and update old structures at the same time, thanks to an increase in tax revenues and in economic growth resulting from a population increase brought about partly by immigration. But in Japan, the population is shrinking, the number of young people purchasing automobiles has been on a decline and the prospect of growth in tax revenues is dismal.

In this situation, roads, bridges, tunnels and other structures built during the period of rapid economic growth are approaching the end of their useful life span.

Little discussion has been held over the extent to which renewal or life-prolonging repair of infrastructure should be carried out and whether Japan continues to need infrastructure to match the traditional size of the population.

One good example of the dilemma is found in Tokyo’s Shuto Expressway, many portions of which date back to the 1960s. One estimate places the cost of repairing, maintaining and renewing this 322.5 km network at more than ¥900 billion.

But Japan cannot afford to raise such a large amount of funds. Similar problems are faced by prefectural and municipal governments. The maintenance of highways and bridges in sparsely populated mountainous areas is causing them financial problems.

Another critical factor overlooked by the Abe administration is the readiness of companies to take part in infrastructural reinforcement. In the reconstruction of areas hit by the 3/11 disasters, construction companies have shunned many small-scale projects. The number of engineers engaged in the management of infrastructure has also decreased from nearly 90,000 in 2005 to fewer than 80,000 in 2010.

This problem could assume more serious proportions with the Abe administration’s policy of cutting salaries of civil servants working for prefectural and municipal governments. The grandiose plan to reinforce the nation’s infrastructure could end up being a pie in the sky unless more attention is paid to details.

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

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