Financial woes keep Kyoto covered with power lines Share

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Power lines spread like cobwebs along Chawan-zaka street, which leads to Kiyomizu Temple in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto.

KYOTO — Kyoto authorities are dedicated to preserving its elegant townscape, but efforts to move power lines underground have stalled due to financial problems.

A project to put power lines underground along 24 routes — over a combined distance of 10.1 kilometers and at a cost of about ¥9 billion — has been shelved, with no prospects for the work to start. Given the snail’s pace of such activities in Kyoto, compared to other major cities, people connected with the tourist industry are wondering when things will get moving.

Funding shelved

Chawan-zaka is a sloping street leading to Kiyomizu Temple, which is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto. If there were no power lines or utility poles obstructing our vision, this street would present a clear view of an elegant, three-story vermilion pagoda.

“What a shame! That view would touch the hearts of travelers,” a 40-year-old woman visiting from Fukuoka Prefecture said.

Kyoto actively safeguards its scenery, seeking to maintain a unified townscape through such steps as banning advertisements that flash on and off and rooftop signs. It also tightly regulates the height of buildings.

Burying power lines is a part of these efforts. The city has gradually laid power lines under such streets as Karasuma-dori, Kawaramachi-dori and Shijo-dori since 1986. Near Kiyomizu Temple, it has already finished putting power lines underground along Sannei-zaka, another sloping approach to the temple.

By March last year, power lines had been buried underground on 111 routes, covering a total distance of about 62 kilometers. Under a project decided on in 2019 and planned to continue over the following 10 years, 24 routes were supposed to be prioritized to protect the townscape, including 400 meters along Chawan-zaka, 200 meters along Ginkakuji-michi (0.2 km), and 500 meters along Yasaka-dori.

However, at a meeting of the city assembly in December 2020, Mayor Daisaku Kadokawa declared that due to financial difficulties, the city of Kyoto could fall into what is known as “municipal bankruptcy in need of financial rehabilitation,” the equivalent of a corporate failure, in fiscal 2028.

All policy measures were therefore to be reexamined. It was decided at a meeting of the city assembly last March that funding to bury power lines to protect the townscape would be shelved until at least fiscal 2023.

Prioritizing disaster measures

According to the city of Kyoto, it costs about ¥900 million per kilometer to construct multipurpose underground conduits along a street, in which power lines run through the same space as communications lines.

Two-thirds of the cost is born by the central government and the relevant local authority, and the remaining one-third by business operators, including power companies. Although the central government has supported these projects through such measures as enacting a law in 2016 to promote the laying of power lines underground, many local governments cannot afford it.

Priority is instead given to roads that are deemed to be important in mitigating disasters.

About 8,000 utility poles came down during the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, and about 56,000 as a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. In both cases, fallen utility poles blocked the streets, hindering evacuations and delaying post-quake reconstruction work.

While not appropriating any funds for burying power lines to improve the scenery in its budget for the current fiscal year, the Kyoto city government included ¥820 million for placing power lines under main roads where emergency vehicles are expected to operate in times of disaster. Work to bury power lines under the 12 routes — covering a total distance of 9.9 kilometers — is to be conducted as originally planned.

Securing local approval

Many foreign cities take it for granted that their streets are free from utility poles. According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, 100% of power lines are underground in London, Paris and Hong Kong; 96% in Taipei; and 49% in Seoul.

As the Japanese government accelerated the country’s reconstruction in postwar years, it used utility poles to establish networks for power supply and communications. Even in the 23 wards of central Tokyo, where the most work had been done as of fiscal 2017, only 8% of power lines were underground.

Although Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has been actively promoting such efforts, streets free from utility poles can be seen only in such areas as around Tokyo Skytree, and along Aoyama-dori street.

In Osaka, where power lines have already been put underground along such streets as Sonezaki-Shinchi-Hon-dori and Soemoncho-dori, both located in amusement areas, the percentage remains only at 6%. But Kyoto is even lower, at 2%.

Kyoto’s streets stretch a total of 3,600 kilometers. The city plans to put power lines underground over a total length of about 275 kilometers, or 8% of the total, work that is expected to take decades to complete.

According to a city official, “Many narrow streets remain as they were in olden days, so it takes a long time to reach a consensus with residents over such matters as where the devices that need to be set up aboveground should be located along the street.”

It took three years, for example, for a consensus to be reached regarding Chawan-zaka.

“Once the coronavirus pandemic is brought under control, more tourists will surely come to Kyoto,” said Kihachi Okamoto, 72, the chairman of an association of shops located along the street.

“I thought now would be the time for the work [to put power lines underground] to get moving. Is there any way out of this situation?” said Okamoto, who runs a store selling Nishijin textiles.

Hiroto Kotake, a professor at Gunma University and a scholar of public policy, said: “Laying power lines underground is one of the important challenges for a tourist city. The central government should extend more financial and other support while encouraging business operators to devise better construction methods that can reduce the cost.”