Tokyo’s “Dinosaur Bridge” opens to vehicles this weekend after 10 years of construction as the world’s largest metropolis tackles traffic jams that slow vehicles to half of Japan’s average highway speed.
The 2,618-meter (1.6-mile) bridge, whose nickname derives from its shape, will bring 19 billion yen ($246 million) in economic benefits a year as it almost halves journey times to container terminals in Tokyo Bay, the government estimates. Built at an estimated cost of 113 billion yen, it’s forecast to carry about 32,000 vehicles a day between eastern Tokyo and a man-made island, where a new container terminal is being built.
The four-lane bridge will be followed by a ring road and two larger loop lines around Japan’s capital. The improvements, spurred by the city’s unsuccessful bid to host the 2016 Olympics, are intended to cut traffic jams in and around the metropolis of more than 35 million people.
“The new bridge will ease congestion in the whole waterfront area,” said Shinichi Ishii, a senior consultant for public management and strategy at Nomura Research Institute Inc. “There is a premium on the value of time in the area, and the economic impact could be two or three times more than government estimates.”
As migration from the countryside and smaller cities boosts Tokyo’s population, the city is increasing use of its waterfront by reclaiming land and building islands in Tokyo Bay. The three fastest-growing prefectures in Japan from 2005 to 2010 were all in the greater Tokyo region, led by Tokyo Prefecture, which increased its population 4.7 percent to 13.2 million, according to Japan’s statistics bureau.
Haneda airport, also built on reclaimed land in the bay, opened a fourth runway and started 24-hour operations in 2010.
To expand container trade, Japan has selected the Port of Tokyo, the nation’s busiest cargo handler, along with nearby Kawasaki and Yokohama as the main focus for port investment in the region.
The new container terminal being built on the man-made island will be able to handle ships capable of carrying 10,000 boxes, according to the port office, which is part of the national government’s transport ministry.
The Tokyo Gate Bridge, as it is officially known, will shorten the travel time to the island from the city’s Shin-Kiba district to 10 minutes from 19 minutes, according to the Tokyo Port Office. It will also give truckers a choice of routes to the city’s main Aomi and Oi container terminals.
The bridge, which weighs about 36,000 tons, was built for less than the original estimate of about 140 billion yen, thanks to new techniques and materials, said Koki Hosaka, a civil engineer at Tokyo Ports. It is built to withstand an earthquake directly under Tokyo, he said.
The height of the bridge was limited since it is on the approach to Haneda airport, meaning that a suspension bridge wasn’t an option, Hosaka said. The construction also needed to be wide and high enough underneath for ships to pass, he said, leading to the final design that resembles two dinosaurs facing off.
Tokyo-based Kawada Industries Inc. spent two years building the dinosaur-shaped trusses for the bridge, according to Yoshifumi Kodama, a manager for the project. The company used three cranes on boats to lay the bridge on the support columns, he said.
“It hadn’t been done for a bridge of this type in Japan for 16 years,” said Kodama. “It was very nerve wracking as we had to do it in one shot.”
It will be followed by a new Tokyo ring road, set to be completed by March 2014, and two new larger loop lines that are under construction.
While roads and bridges can help cut travel time for truckers, the government could do more to help by extending operating hours at container terminals, said Toshio Araki, head of container operations at the Tokyo Trucking Association.
“The problem is with processing at the terminal rather than the roads,” Araki said. “It’s extremely crowded. The gates are only open during the day and so trucks have to line up and wait. It can take anything from a couple of hours to more than 16 hours.”
The bridge, which has a walkway for pedestrians, is already helping to spur tourism in the area. Sightseeing boat operator Zeal Cruise Division has almost sold all its seats this month for its 80-minute tours of the bridge.
“The tours have become popular for families with kids,” Hirano Takumi, Zeal’s president, said in an interview. “We’re almost completely booked for the opening month and next month. We want overseas tourists to come and see Japan’s new mammoth bridge.”