JAPAN Big New Crossings Can Use Much More Traffic

September 21, 1998

JAPAN Big New Crossings Can Use Much More Traffic

Originally published in issue 31 of Tollroads Newsletter, which came out in Sep 1998.


Subjects:traffic low below forecasts

Facilities:Tokyo Bay Cross Bay Aqua-Line Akashi Kaikyo Bridge

Agencies:Tokyo Bay Highway Corporation TBHC

Locations:Tokyo Shikoku Japan


Big New Crossings Can Use Much More Traffic

The past year has seen the opening of two of the world’s largest and most expensive toll crossings in Japan — (1) the Akashi-Kaikyo, the world’s longest suspension bridge, and (2) the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line, one of the longer undersea tunnels. It is early days and Japan is in recession but the bridge seems to be doing alright, and the Tokyo Bay tunnel rather poorly.

The Akashi-Kaikyo with a main suspension span of 1990m is almost a quarter longer than the next longest bridge in the world (Denmark’s Great Belt bridge of 1624m) and cost $4b. It opened in March 98 and links the fourth island of Japan Shikoku (pop 5.2m) with the major island Honshu (see TRnl Aug 97 p14.) The bridge is part of a new 90km expressway and the combined toll is around $50. On the bridge itself the toll is Y2600 ($18) for a car, Y4250 ($32) for a truck. Its traffic in the first five months of operation has been 30k veh/day and almost 10% are heavy trucks so it’s pulling solid toll revenues — maybe $200m/yr. It’s a 6-lane bridge so it’s only being used to perhaps a quarter of its capacity, but a long-lived asset like this is built for a design load decades out. The Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Authority which runs the bridge says traffic is below projections but expects 5% annual growth to 2010.

The Authority has already negotiated a lengthening of the payback period of its debt, and its tolls have been discounted a third from the initally announced rates. It has taken traffic from more expensive ferry and air services and generated new traffic on its own account. When prosperity returns the vacation attractions of the area — Shikoku encloses the famous Inland sea — seem likely to boost traffic.

The Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line (TBAL) project looks in much deeper trouble. Two years ago the forecast was 33k veh/day in its first year of operation. This was scaled back to 25k before the opening on Dec 18 97. In fact traffic in the first month was 14k veh/day, and dropped after the early novelty trips, getting below 10k veh/day through June and July. It has bounced up to 13k in August, the latest month for which numbers have been published. Cars pay a basic toll of Y4000 ($30), trucks Y6600 ($50). Traffic was forecast to grow from 25k in the first year to 53k veh/day after 20 years.

It is unclear what, if anything, can be done by the management to boost revenues. At 12k veh/day the project is grossing about $150m/yr for its owner the Trans-Tokyo Bay Highway Corp (TTBHC.) TTBHC is an investor-owned company which put some $700m of capital into the project, with 93% of the total $11 billion cost being in the form of government, or government- guaranteed, loans.

Wild finance

If the financing looks wild, the project is an amazing feat of construction. Taking 9 years to build, it consists of twin tubes of 2-lane tunnel that heads off from the western shore of Tokyo Bay near Kawasaki under the main shipping channels for 9.5km. At the centerpoint of the tunnels there is a 200m diameter ventilation shaft structure in the middle of Toyko Bay topped with two sail-like ventilation towers that soar 96m to disperse emissions and mark it for ships. The twin tunnels emerge two-third the way across the Bay into a manmade island named Umihotaru. With 360 degree views this is a lavish resort/entertainment center with a huge parking garage and promenades, an attraction in its own right. Then continuing east there is 4.4km of bridge over the shallower waters to the eastern shore — for a total length of 15km (9mi).

A 30km trip using the Bay crossing Kawasaki to the east Bay area might take 30mins, says the bridge company, whereas on an expressway around the Bay it is 100km and about 90mins. On 90km of surface roads driving time is estimated at 220mins. So the time saving on the Aqua-Line is about an hour compared to the regular exwy, which itself carries a hefty toll, and over 3 hours compared to surface roads. It seems a competitive deal, but on the numbers so far, the traffic just isn’t there.

Chiba, the prefecture on the east side of the Bay has 6m pop. There are about 15m on the eastside. The Aqua-Line crossing is designated National Hwy 409 which on longterm plans goes from Kawasaki on the southern fringe of downtown Tokyo and near the main port area of Yokohama, clean across Chiba pref. eventually to the major airport Narita up to the far northeast of the Tokyo metro area. Then NH409 and the Aqua-Line will be a second route from the airport to downtown and to the major cities to the west. But most of that expressway is years away from construction.

Without that major highway in the direction of Narita, this expensive crossing while a constuction wonder, looks to be a financial folly.

Grand projects of this kind are under severe criticism in Japan now, together with the kind of government backing that attracts investors into them. They may be the last new ones for quite a while. (Contact TTBHC fax 81 3 3239 4858)

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