The Yomiuri Shimbun 7:13 pm, May 19, 2014
Safety inspections for antiquated bridges, tunnels urgently needed
Inspections of aging infrastructure such as bridges and tunnels are urgently needed to promptly work out and implement safety measures. This is a challenge that weighs heavily on local governments around the country.
Effective from July, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry will make it obligatory for bridges and tunnels under the administration of prefectural governments as well as those managed by city, town and village municipalities to receive safety checks every five years. Local governments are supposed to assess the safety of bridges and tunnels in four stages, and take countermeasures corresponding to the respective stages.
If a structure is judged as being in a “state requiring emergency measures,” with impediments to its proper functions or having an extremely high possibility of impediments, the rules laid down by the ministry call for the local government concerned to carry out swift repairs and impose necessary traffic regulations.
Up to now, there have been no criteria of safety inspections common to all local governments, such as frequency of inspections and safety evaluation methods. The central government’s action is proper, as it is aimed at obliging local entities to carry out safety inspections and assessments uniformly to resolve the problem of decaying infrastructure.
What is problematic in this connection is that damage to and deterioration of infrastructure, or social overhead capital, such as bridges and tunnels, many of which were built during the period of rapid economic growth, will certainly worsen rapidly from now on.
About 40 percent of bridges throughout the country and about 30 percent of tunnels will be more than 50 years old in 10 years from now.
It should be noted that it is not the central government but local governments that are in charge of administering 90 percent of the nation’s 700,000 bridges and 70 percent of the 10,000 tunnels. Local entities must lose no time in buckling down to the task of dealing with aging infrastructure.
Scarcity of engineers
Infrastructure safety measures taken so far by local governments are inadequate.
A fact-finding survey the ministry conducted in the wake of the collapse of part of the ceiling of the Sasago Tunnel of the Chuo Expressway in Yamanashi Prefecture in December 2012 revealed that 30 percent of local governments with tunnels under their jurisdiction had never conducted a safety inspection of any tunnel before the Sasago Tunnel collapse.
The reluctance of local governments to carry out repairs on aging infrastructure may be due to a shortage of funds and inadequate technical capabilities.
Therefore, the central government’s action simply to oblige local governments to conduct regular safety inspections and come up with safety evaluations may not produce the desired results.
It is necessary for both the central government and local entities to redouble their efforts to secure sources of funds to deal with aging infrastructure and beef up collaboration with private-sector businesses.
It may be inevitable to close down bridges and tunnels that have seen little use in depopulated areas to reduce the number of those to be inspected and repaired to cut expenditures.
If a number of city, town and village governments got together in issuing contracts to repair aging infrastructure, they would be able to boost the efficiency in budgetary appropriations.
Meanwhile, local governments also suffer from a serious shortage of engineers to maintain and repair infrastructure. About 50 percent of the country’s town governments and 70 percent of village governments have no engineers capable of inspecting bridges.
Is it not possible for the central government and businesses to send engineers to local entities plagued by manpower shortages and have them carry out inspections and repairs on infrastructure that require a high level of skill?
Due consideration also should be given to training courses to improve the technical capabilities of local governments so they can carry out infrastructure maintenance and create an ability-based qualification system.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 19, 2014)