- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

TOKYO — Of all the sights on the flight into Tokyo’s airport, few are as remarkable as the bridge that disappears in the middle of Tokyo Bay.

The Aqua-Line route dives under the sea and continues as a tunnel, a symbol both of Japan’s engineering prowess and its profligacy with public money.

Completed in 1997, the 9.3-mile link cost $13 billion and cuts an hour off the journey between Tokyo and Chiba. But the toll is more than $25 a car and up to $80 for trucks, so most drivers continue to take the old coast road.

The cost of such programs, now estimated to be about $50 billion a year, is one of the greatest problems facing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as he seeks to breathe life into the recession-struck economy and convince the world that his country is serious about reform.

Yesterday, Mr. Koizumi dissolved the lower house of parliament and set a Nov. 9 date for national elections seen as a test for his economic reforms. The national elections are the first since he rose to power in April 2001 on a wave of voter discontent, and offer a chance for him to solidify his ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s dominance in the lower house — the more powerful of the legislature’s two chambers.

In a move designed to give a fresh face to the Cabinet before the elections, the prime minister has made one key appointment. He has promoted the energetic Nobuteru Ishihara, 46, to the post of land, infrastructure and transport minister with the task of eliminating “white elephants.”

Mr. Ishihara, clearly out of step with some officials, said, “Public corporations have degenerated into inefficient, loss-making organizations that construct unnecessary bridges and unwanted roads. The sole function of many such corporations is to provide ministry bureaucrats with overpaid post-retirement jobs. This breeds corruption and government waste.”

Seven million people, 10 percent of the work force, are employed in construction, but Mr. Koizumi has vowed to rein in public spending, which has caused the national debt to swell to 140 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product, the highest among the most-developed nations and rising.

The main target is likely to be the Japan Highway Public Corp. Apart from the Aqua-Line, it is responsible for numerous rural expressways with “more bears than cars,” as the Japanese put it.

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