A highway system that ever exacts toll


Expressways have been a prominent feature of postwar Japan’s infrastructure-building efforts.

While they have contributed to the economy by connecting major cities and rural areas, for drivers they come at a price. Tolls are in many cases higher here than in other countries.

Following are basic questions and answers about expressways in Japan:

When were the expressways built?

The National Development Longitudinal Expressway Construction Law was enacted in 1957 to pave the way for building highways.

In the previous year, the government-owned Japan Highway Public Corp. was established to manage the construction of pay-per-use roads.

The Meishin Expressway was the first to open, in 1963, running 71 km between Ritto, Shiga Prefecture, and Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.

The National Development Longitudinal Expressway Construction Law was revised in 1966 to incorporate plans for a 7,600-km nationwide network. In 1987, the government approved expanding the network to 11,520 km.

The expressway system has now grown to about 7,600 km, according to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry.

What is the traffic volume on expressways?

The expressway handbook, published by Zenkoku Kosoku Doro Kensetsu Kyogikai (National Expressway Construction Association) says 4.41 million vehicles use the expressways daily, driving an average of 43.7 km.

To make the expressways easier to use, the Electronic Toll Collection system has been introduced at toll gates in recent years. Vehicles equipped with a special transponder and antenna can pass through the gates without stopping, and tolls are automatically charged to their accounts.

For regular expressway users, the ETC reduces the backup at entrance gates.

Who manages the expressways?

JHPC and the publicly owned Metropolitan Expressway Public Corp., Hanshin Expressway Corp. and Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Authority had long managed the expressway network where it fell under their jurisdictions.

But in 2005, JHPC was privatized and spun off into West Nippon Expressway Co., East Nippon Expressway Co. and Central Nippon Expressway Co. as part of reforms spearheaded by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The three other firms were also privatized, and their successors now manage the expressways in their respective areas.

As public-run entities, the four predecessor firms had rung up about ¥40 trillion in debt through never-ending road construction projects. The Koizumi administration sought to end such excesses.

Why are Japan’s expressway tolls so costly?

Thought to be the steepest in the world, Japan’s tolls average ¥24.6 per km, compared with the equivalent of ¥10.8 to ¥13.45 per km in France and ¥7.01 in Italy.

France and Italy also have freeways, as is the case with most expressways in the United States, except in heavily traveled corridors such as in the eastern part of the country, where there are many turnpikes.

To explain the high cost in Japan, critics often point to the way in which JHPC constructed the expressways.

Because the government began building expressways before the economy had reached a high level of prosperity, it did not have the financial resources to cover such large-scale projects.

JHPC thus borrowed funds from financial institutions to construct certain segments, paying back the debt via toll fees collected from drivers.

The expressways were to become freeways once the debt was paid off.

As it is, the Meishin Tomei Expressway debt was paid off in 1990. However, there are expressway sections with low traffic volumes that lose money because maintenance costs exceed toll revenues.

It was thus decided in 1972 that tolls would be pooled from all expressways to provide a single source of operating funds.

Also, according to a book about JHPC written by an NHK reporting team, the corporation mainly placed construction orders with affiliated firms with little regard for keeping costs down.

High land prices and the need for earthquake resistance also inflates construction costs in Japan.

Because some expressways were never expected to be profitable but were deemed necessary for the transportation system, the government in 2003 opted to use tax revenues to construct some sections.

Will there be freeways once the debts are paid off?

When JHPC was privatized, the privatization law required the firm to pay off all its debts within 45 years.

A land ministry official said it was the first time a payment deadline was stipulated by law — a big step.

But some doubt expressways will ever be free, because JHPC kept putting off the debt payment plan in the past. Others say that even if the debts are paid off, tolls will still be charged to cover maintenance costs.

Do expressways serve a political function?

Such highways are a part of traditional pork-barrel politics. Politicians have routinely won over voters by promising to bring public works projects to their districts, especially in rural areas.

As public projects, the expressways have proved an effective means to empower certain politicians, who were given the nickname “road tribe.”

When Koizumi was trying to privatize JHPC, the privatization promotion panel suggested that toll revenues collected under the spinoff firms mainly be used to pay back debts. However, many lawmakers from the Liberal Democratic Party wanted the revenues diverted to construct more highways.

The Democratic Party of Japan has vowed to make all expressways apart from some urban portions free. The LDP-New Komeito ruling coalition argues this is unrealistic.

The stimulus package Prime Minister Taro Aso unveiled in October includes a plan to reduce tolls to ¥1,000 and around ¥1,500 on regional expressways on weekends and national holidays. Tolls on weekdays would be cut by around 30 percent.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk