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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. 

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The company said that no structural faults had been found when routine tests were carried out in September, but admitted the inspection did not include acoustic tests on the section of ceiling that caved in. "That is something we need to reflect on,” Mr. Yoshikawa says. “I offer my profound apologies.”

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The collapse sent almost 400 tons of concrete cascading on to vehicles about 1 mile inside the Tokyo-bound lane of the tunnel.

Using debate on infrastructure as election fodder

The Sasago tunnel is part of a nationwide network of more than 1,500 tunnels that dot Japan’s mountainous terrain. About a quarter of them were built during Japan’s dramatic postwar growth more than 30 years ago.

Shinzo Abe, who is expected to become Japan’s seventh prime minister in six years, promised his Liberal Democratic party would invest heavily in public works to boost the economy. The cost of repairing and maintaining roads, bridges and other infrastructure is expected to soar in the next two decades.

The prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, whose Democratic Party of Japan says it has reduced spending on public works by more than 30 percent in the past three years, blasted Mr. Abe’s plan as a return to wasteful pork-barrel politics, and said investment should be targeted instead at health care and other social services.

Three men and two women in their 20s who were traveling together in a rented van were killed. Another woman who was part of the group managed to escape and was treated for minor injuries. A truck driver who used his mobile phone to call a coworker just after the accident to ask for help also died.

Noda offered his condolences to the families of those who were killed. “I offer my sincere prayers to those who lost their lives or were injured in this accident,” he said. “I have ordered the transport ministry to do everything possible to help the injured and to quickly establish the cause of the accident so that something like this never happens again.”

The transport ministry ordered emergency safety checks of 49 tunnels of a similar age and design to the one involved in Sunday’s accident, and plans to complete them before millions of people drive to their hometowns for year-end and New Year celebrations.

Officials said the stretch of highway damaged on Sunday is unlikely to fully reopen this year, raising the possibility of widespread disruption during the busy holiday season. The tunnel, which links Tokyo to central and western Japan, is located along the Chuo expressway, a major artery used by about 47,000 vehicles a day.

Sunday’s accident was the worst of its kind since 1996, when a rockslide caused by the collapse of a tunnel in northern Japan engulfed cars and a bus, killing 20 people.

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