It’s that time of year again, when the highways and byways of Japan are suddenly filled with construction crews tearing up asphalt for repair and maintenance work. That’s because the annual budgets of the crews’ public-sector employers must be used up before the end of the fiscal year in March, regardless of whether or not the work is urgently needed. Japan’s motor-vehicle arteries may not be the world’s most convenient, but they are definitely the best maintained. I challenge anyone to find a single pothole on the streets of Tokyo.

A certain type of cynic will point to this situation as evidence of Japan’s obsession with automobiles, but realists understand that it is just another manifestation of bureaucratic business-as-usual. As with research-whaling and traffic safety, road maintenance is less significant for achieving results than it is for justifying the budgets of related public-sector entities — in this case government departments that oversee public works. If such a department doesn’t spend all the money in its budget before the fiscal year ends, it may be difficult to request as much money next year, so it finds work to do.

A similar process governs the building of new roads. In the current political row over the provisional gasoline tax, whose revenues are earmarked for new road construction, the ruling coalition wants to extend the tax for another 10 years after it expires on March 31, and has already estimated revenues of ¥59 trillion for new road construction during that period without specifying projects. In other words, the government wants to secure the money before it decides what to do with it.

The opposition bloc is against the extension, saying it wants to reduce gasoline prices — the provisional tax adds ¥25 to every liter of gas sold in Japan. Their underlying aim is to force a deadlock on the budget and thus precipitate a snap election, which the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition force, is confident it can win. However, last week, after the ruling Liberal Democratic Party proposed a stopgap bill that would extend the provisional tax another two months, the ruling and opposition blocs struck a deal to withdraw the bill, a move that may make it difficult for the DPJ to force a deadlock.

Implemented in the 1970s, the provisional gas tax was not meant to be permanent. The ruling coalition and local governments say it is still necessary because Japan still needs roads. The opposition claims that necessary road construction can be paid for in other ways.

The fight has given the media yet another excuse to report on the profligacy of public-works projects. Last weekend TV Asahi ran a special report on boondoggles that used revenues from the provisional tax, including a ¥160 billion project to build a road through a former U.S. military housing complex in Sasebo, Nagasaki Pref., that local people said they didn’t really need.

Shukan Post ran an article on “useless roads,” accusing certain LDP members of using the tax to “pimp” construction projects in their districts. Many of these projects have been named by local residents after the politicians who sponsored them. The “Nikai Bypass” in Wakayama, named after LDP member Toshihiro Nikai, is an elevated 15-km stretch of four-lane highway that cost ¥124 billion and has cut transportation time through surrounding communities by three minutes. The “Muneo Bridge” in Hokkaido, named after scandal-prone Dietman Muneo Suzuki, is a ¥300-million structure that allows vehicles to pass through a remote intersection unhindered by a stop light.

The most enduring monument to the tax is the three bridges built over the Setouchi Sea. The project was proposed in 1970, but studies found it would be impossible to pay off the enormous cost, so two of the bridges were “frozen” only to be “thawed out” in 1985 after the United States pressured Japan to increase public-works spending. Politicians seeking contributions from big construction companies quickly approved the project. As originally predicted, the project remains deeply in the red, and the provisional tax is being used to pay off the debt, which in 2006 stood at ¥1.93 trillion.

Local governments take the provisional tax revenues for granted in propping up their own budgets. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has tried to divert attention from this aspect by claiming that the tax is in effect an environmental tax: If it is gone then gasoline prices will drop and consumption will rise along with CO2 emissions. This claim might make sense if, as in Europe, gas tax revenues were used for things other than road construction, which encourages automobile usage. In response, the LDP has said more roads means less traffic congestion and thus less wasted fuel.

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in fact, wanted to use the tax for social welfare, an idea the opposition favors, but the so-called “doro-zoku” (road tribe) of politicians who have staked their careers on road construction infiltrates all the parties, and they, not to mention the all-powerful land ministry, insist that the tax remain as it is. Even Hideo Higashikokubaru, the popular governor of Miyazaki whose election win was seen as a backlash against his predecessor’s construction-related bid-rigging scandal, says that his prefecture needs more roads.

Some road-related construction, such as safer sidewalks and railroad crossings, is definitely necessary, but rural areas are getting new bypasses and tunnels even as their populations dwindle. Some politicians say that if country roads are infrequently used they are still necessary for emergency vehicles like ambulances, but before you have ambulances you need hospitals with functioning emergency services, which rural areas tend to lack. What should come first? As one letter writer to the Asahi Shimbun put it, the more roads you have in a rural town, the more ways you have to leave it.