Japan tunnel collapse ignites debate about infrastructure spending
Japan has ordered immediate inspections of dozens of road and highway tunnels after the ceiling of a tunnel near Tokyo collapsed on Sunday, killing nine people.
Japan has ordered immediate inspections of dozens of road and highway tunnels after the ceiling of a major tunnel near Tokyo collapsed on Sunday, killing nine people. The tragedy has prompted questions about the state of Japan’s huge network of roads and tunnels, as well as about related public spending as the country prepares for a general election on Dec. 16.Skip to next paragraph
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“It’s going to be a big topic in the election,” says Masahiro Mochizuki, an analyst at Credit Suisse in Tokyo, noting that an investment in roads, bridges, and other infrastructure to coincide with the 1964 Tokyo Olympics had resulted in a modern-day inventory of aging facilities in need of repair.
“Japanese people totally changed their mindset after last year’s earthquake," he says. "They want to live in a safe environment – that’s their priority. Without investment in infrastructure, the Japanese people can’t go about their lives and the country can’t do business.”
The deaths from the collapse occurred after about 270 slabs of concrete used to aid ventilation became detached from the tunnel’s walls and roof, and crashed on to vehicles below. The accident ignited leaking gasoline, sparking a blaze that sent black smoke billowing out of the tunnel’s entrances.
On Tuesday, police raided the headquarters and other offices of Central Japan Expressway (Nexco Central), which operates the affected stretch of highway about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Tokyo.
The firm is being investigated on suspicion of professional negligence after it emerged it had conducted only rudimentary safety checks on the 2.9 mile-long Sasago tunnel, and had not conducted major repairs to the ceiling of the tunnel since it opened to traffic in 1977. A Nexco Central spokesman said the firm would cooperate fully with the investigation.
Nexco Central officials speculated that bolts used to connect the concrete slabs, each weighing up to 1.5 tons, to the tunnel’s inner wall and ceiling could have deteriorated with age. One theory is that the bolts, which have never been renewed, may have been loosened by seismic activity.
Ryoichi Yoshikawa, a Nexco Central official in charge of maintenance, said damaged bolts had been found at the site, adding that they did not appear to have been replaced in 35 years. "There is no record that shows repair work was carried out in the past,” he told reporters.