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Four public expressway corporations said Tuesday they will stop selling high-priced prepaid expressway cards at the end of February.

The expressway firms hope that denying drivers access to the highway cards, available for 30,000 yen and 50,000 yen apiece, will lift the popularity of the struggling electronic toll collection system, according to Chikage Ogi, minister of land, infrastructure and transport.

The ETC system, to be available at 1,300 tollgates nationwide by the end of March, went into operation two years ago but has failed to catch on. Only 3 percent of vehicles registered nationwide have installed the onboard device, which costs up to 30,000 yen to install. Drivers instead present their prepaid cards at manned tollbooths.

The expressway corporations said they will permit drivers to continue using already-issued 30,000 yen and 50,000 yen prepaid cards through the end of February 2004.

The public firms said they will continue selling prepaid cards at face values of 10,000 yen, 5,000 yen and 3,000 yen.

Ogi meanwhile said her ministry is considering also abolishing these lower-priced cards.

The transport minister and the public expressway corporations said the move is also intended to combat widespread forgery of the prepaid cards. Since 1999, 20,000 forged cards, worth 1.1 billion yen, have been discovered.

Drivers buying the 50,000 yen prepaid cards receive an additional 8,000 yen in value. Vehicles fitted with ETC equipment can receive the same discount rate by obtaining ETC cards issued by credit card companies, registering online and paying in advance.

The ETC system incorporates wireless transmission equipment that allows expressway firms to collect tolls automatically from drivers without requiring vehicles to stop at toll gates, thereby preventing congestion.

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