Drivers hit the road as discount tolls debut

Cheaper rates coax travelers away from trains, giving major expressways a surge of activity throughout nation

Kyodo News

Traffic surged on expressways nationwide Saturday as the two-year toll discount regime for weekends and holidays took effect thanks to government efforts to stimulate the economy.

Compared with a year ago, traffic was up 52 percent on the Tokai-Kanjo Expressway in Gifu Prefecture, 48 percent on the Joban Expressway in Fukushima Prefecture, and 46 percent on the Tohoku Expressway on the Fukushima-Tochigi border as of 3 p.m. Saturday, expressway operators said.

The stimulus discounts established a uniform toll of ¥1,000 for an unlimited distance on weekends and holidays for passenger cars and motorcycles equipped with electronic toll collection devices on expressways nationwide, except for the Tokyo and Osaka metropolitan areas, which are subject to separate tolls.

“With the discount rate, I can travel for much cheaper than using the ‘shinkansen’ service,” said Minoru Okita, a 58-year-old Hiroshima company employee, during a break at a rest area on the Meishin Expressway in Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture, on his way to Tokyo to see his daughter.

Expressway companies have mobilized extra traffic controllers at service areas in anticipation of heavy traffic this weekend.

On the Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Expressway, where a uniform discount toll debuted March 20, traffic doubled.

Traffic jams were observed on some expressways, but nothing worse than the usual Saturday congestion, highway operators said.

Traffic on the Chugoku Expressway was backed up 18 km from the Takarazuka-Higashi Tunnel in Hyogo Prefecture on Saturday morning, while the Kanetsu Expressway saw 15-km lines develop near the Takasaka service area in Saitama Prefecture.

Until April 26, those passing through expressways in metropolitan regions will be required to pay the uniform toll twice, in addition to any tolls levied in those areas.

A driver traveling from Fukushima Nishi on the Tohoku Expressway to Hamamatsu on the Tomei Expressway via the Tokyo metropolitan expressway will have to pay ¥3,950, compared with the usual ¥11,850. After the double levy disappears late next month, the sum will drop to ¥2,950.

“The discount helps me a lot,” said Kenji Murata, 62, a self-employed man from Utsunomiya taking a break at a Tomei Expressway facility in Ebina, Kanagawa Prefecture, that had filled to capacity by 9 a.m.

“Given the lower rate, I would like to drive to places in the Kansai region, such as Nara and Kyoto,” he said before resuming his trip to a spa in Shizuoka.

The supplementary budget for fiscal 2008 set aside ¥500 billion to cover losses in toll income expected from the toll discounts for two years.