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Japan’s Aging Infrastructure

The U.S. isn’t the only developed economy anxious about its infrastructure. A deadly tunnel collapse last week on a busy highway near Tokyo has led to doubts about the quality and safety of Japan’s much vaunted, enormously expensive infrastructure. The Associated Press:

Experts told the panel that about 40 percent of the 8,716 kilometers of expressways the agencies run had been in operation for more than 30 years, the Yomiuri newspaper reported Tuesday.

The paper cited Kyoto University expert Toyoaki Miyagawa as saying that countermeasures are “urgently needed” because the roadways and tunnels were built according to specifications suiting much lighter traffic loads than today’s.

After building a massive amount of infrastructure in the decades following World War II, Japan cut spending over the past few years due to persistent economic stagnation and debt. This wasn’t entirely a bad thing: Japan is notorious for its pork barrel spending projects, especially on infrastructure, and some cuts were certainly necessary  But Japan is learning that it’s hard to cut wasteful spending while continuing to invest where it’s needed.

Shinzo Abe, in all likelihood the next prime minister of Japan when the country holds elections on December 16, has said he will increase infrastructure spending once more, a convenient destination for funds freed up by the aggressive monetary easing he has in mind. But it’s unlikely that Japan’s infrastructure problems can be solved by simply spending more. More important is rethinking how this money is spent.

Getting infrastructure right is hard for governments. Renovating existing roads, pipes, electricity networks and bridges is much less glamorous than building grandiose new highways and high-speed rail projects. Nobody wants to attend the ribbon cutting for a sewer or an electrical grid. But particularly as more and more business moves online, ultra-high speed rail travel and shiny public buildings will probably be less useful on a dollar-per-dollar (or yen-for-yen) basis than a faster internet network and improvements to the basic infrastructure we need to survive. Hopefully Japan will heed this lesson, although the prospects aren’t good.

In the U.S. we’re dealing with similar issues, as indebted California continues to chase enormously expensive high-speed rail even as the basic infrastructure in its cities rapidly decays. More broadly, rather than doubling down on 20th-century technology, we should be exploring ways to use the technology of the 21st. Infostructure, not infrastructure, is the way of the future.

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