Tolls to be lifted on 1,626 km of highways

by Kazuaki Nagata

The transport ministry Tuesday unveiled a plan to make 1,626 km of the nation’s expressways toll-free in fiscal 2010, an experiment in accordance with the ruling party’s key election promise to eventually remove user fees from most rural expressways.

The plan will affect 37 routes, mostly in rural areas, and includes sections of the Chuo, Higashi Kyushu, Do-o and Okinawa expressways.

The 1,626 km represents about 18 percent of the nation’s expressways excluding the Tokyo metropolitan area and the Hanshin region surrounding Osaka.

“We will conduct this experiment to examine the effect on tourism promotion, efficient product distribution, stimulating local economies as well as traffic jams, the environment and other transportation businesses,” said transport minister Seiji Maehara, a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan.

Sumio Mabuchi, senior vice transport minister, said the ministry hopes to start the experiment in June. It will end by April 2011.

To implement the program, ¥100 billion have been allocated in the fiscal 2010 draft budget.

The ministry initially requested ¥600 billion but was turned down because of the massive government deficit.

All automobiles regardless of whether they have an electronic toll collection device can travel the toll-free expressways. The current special discount system applies only to ETC-equipped automobiles.

After examining the results of the experiment, the ministry hopes to gradually make most expressways toll-free.

Removing tolls from expressways nationwide except in the Tokyo and Hanshin metropolitan areas was a key campaign promise of the DPJ, which took power after winning the general election last August.

Many experts and lawmakers have criticized the pledge, saying it flies in the face of the DPJ’s vow to cut Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels. Instead, they say, the loss of revenue will increase the snowballing government debt.

The toll rate of about ¥24.6 per kilometer is often said to be higher than in many other nations.