KOJIMA, Okayama Pref. — At 8 a.m. every weekday, several high school students await their trains here at JR Kojima Station for an unusual trip — a 20-km commute across the Seto Onland Sea to their school in Shikoku.

The islands of Honshu and Shikoku were connected for the first time in April 1988 by the 18.5-km Seto Ohashi Bridge, spurring a geographical integration reflected by the increase in such students. Despite the new linkage by road and railway, however, local economies on both sides of the bridge have not fared as well as expected.

Local governments and businesses in the Chugoku and Shikoku regions are now taking a look at the bridge’s exorbitant tolls and pressuring the Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Public Corp., which runs the bridge, to slash its fees.

To travel between Kojima and Sakaide, in Shikoku’s Kagawa Prefecture, on the bridge, a regular passenger car must pay a toll of 5,880 yen one way, or 10,200 yen both ways. The same trip by JR train costs only 510 yen.

The two regions claim the tolls have made the bridge so unpopular that it may negatively affect both economies. “I’ve once driven customers to the other side of the bridge,” a local taxi driver said. “But if I’m off work, I’ll never take that route to Shikoku, because I don’t feel like paying such a ridiculous amount just to cross the bridge.”

“The Seto Ohashi Bridge has become a bottleneck for transportation companies and tourists on the road,” said Akira Mizuta of the construction project promotion section at the Okayama Prefectural Government. “The public corporation should be aware that the bridge is a powerful tool for promoting local economies in this region.”

Although the opening of the Okayama Highway in March has provided local businesses with some money-making opportunities, Mizuta fears the bridge’s expensive tolls may dash those hopes. By connecting other expressways already in operation, the highway has made it possible to drive between Yonago, Shimane Prefecture, and Nankoku, Kochi Prefecture, via the Seto Ohashi Bridge in four hours.

“We are afraid that the exchange of people, commodities and culture between Honshu and Shikoku through the bridge may fail to increase just because of its expensive toll,” Mizuta said. “That’s why we are pressing for a rate cut in cooperation with other governments and businesses in this region.”

Business communities in Okayama, Kagawa, Tottori and Shimane prefectures have made repeated requests for the Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Public Corp. to reduce its toll by 30 percent. In the meantime, governors in those prefectures have also called on the Construction Ministry, which supervises the corporation, to take action as well.

“So far, the ministry’s answer has not been favorable to us,” Okayama Gov. Masahiro Ishii told reporters recently. “But we will keep pressing the corporation and the ministry for a major rate cut.”

Behind the sense of crisis lies a corporation project for constructing two other bridges between Honshu and Shikoku by the turn of the century. They fear the bridges will put the Kojima-Sakaide route under enormous risk. According to the corporation, work will be completed as early as next year on an Akashi Straits bridge in Hyogo Prefecture that will connect Akashi, on the Honshu side, with Iwaya, on Awaji Island. The other one will link Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, to Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, in 1999.

“We heard that the economic commission of the corporation, a panel of experts for its president, is now discussing tolls for the three bridges,” Mizuta said. “Whether the toll for the Seto Ohashi Bridge will go up or down totally depends on how the talks turn out.”

Seeking a rate cut, however, is probably too much to expect, because the Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Public Corp. is reportedly billions of yen in the red and lying on the brink of bankruptcy. According to the corporation, road traffic on the Seto Ohashi Bridge averaged 10,823 vehicles a day in the first year, or less than half the corporation’s projection of 24,900. The bridge was averaging 14,400 vehicles a day in fiscal 1995.

Ryoichi Fujiwara, president of the corporation, has reportedly said his personal view is that the current toll is too high, but nonetheless stressed that running the bridge while reducing its toll may be unrealistic. The corporation explained that the burst of the bubble economy earlier in the 1990s and following economic recession have made management of the Seto Ohashi Bridge difficult. Whether the corporation is in the red or in the black, however, local governments and businesses in the Chugoku and Shikoku regions are continuing their petition drive.

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