Motorists across the nation this Saturday, if they have an Electronic Toll Collection device, will start feeling the effects of Prime Minister Taro Aso’s economic stimulus measures.

The maximum fee on regional expressways will be cut to ¥1,000 for an unlimited distance on weekends and national holidays. On weekdays, tolls on most expressways outside the Tokyo and Osaka areas will be cut more than 30 percent. The discounts are scheduled to last about two years.

Following are some questions and answers about the expressway toll discounts:

What is the purpose of the discounts and how much will they cost taxpayers?

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry says the cuts will enhance tourism and stimulate the economy. A ministry official expressed hope that motorists will spend more in the regions they visit.

The ministry will allocate ¥500 billion for the discounts.

How will the toll cuts on regional expressways be implemented?

On weekends and national holidays, ordinary cars and light vehicles, including motorcycles, will receive a 50 percent discount. The maximum toll will be ¥1,000.

Separately, the Tokyo Bay Aqualine bridge-tunnel and the Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Expressway will charge no more than ¥1,000.

A weekday discount of more than 30 percent will be available on regional expressways for motorists traveling up to 100 km between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. The discount will vary depending on the time of day.

What about toll discounts for the Metropolitan Expressway (Shuto Kosoku), the Hanshin Expressway and other toll highways in the Tokyo and Osaka areas?

On Sundays and national holidays, the Metropolitan Expressway will charge ¥500 on Tokyo lines, down from the current ¥700. The toll on its Kanagawa lines will be cut to ¥400 from ¥600, while that on the Saitama line will be slashed to ¥300 from ¥400.

Fees to use the Hanshin Expressway in the Osaka region also will be discounted on weekends and national holidays. Hanshin’s east lines will be ¥500 from the current ¥700, and the west and south lines will be ¥350 from ¥500.

Most other expressways in the Tokyo and Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe areas will cut tolls 30 percent from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends and national holidays.

For example, traveling from Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki to Yamagata-Zao on Sundays or national holidays will require ¥500 for the Metropolitan Expressway, ¥700 for the Tohoku Expressway’s Tokyo area portion, and ¥1,000 for the rest of the way on the Tohoku and Yamagata expressways, bringing the total to ¥2,200, instead of the current ¥8,350.

When you travel from one region to another via the Tokyo or Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe areas, how will you be charged?

The cost will be different before and after April 26 because the necessary technological adjustments to the ETC system will take some time.

Until April 26, if you travel from one region to another via those metropolitan areas, regional expressways will cost up to ¥1,000. If you are traveling from Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, to Fukushima-nishi on Sundays and national holidays via Tokyo, it will cost ¥3,950 in total.

First, you have to pay ¥1,000 from Hamamatsu to Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, ¥750 from Atsugi to Tokyo on the Tomei Expressway and ¥500 for the Metropolitan Expressway. Then, the toll on the Tohoku Expressway from Kawaguchi to Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, will be ¥700, and that from Kazo to Fukushima-nishi will be ¥1,000.

But if you can avoid going through a metropolitan area, the total cost on regional expressways will be no more than ¥1,000.

How does the ETC work?

When a car with the device passes through a tollgate at less than around 20 kph, signals are transmitted and the fee is charged automatically. The car doesn’t have to stop, mitigating congestion at on-ramps and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

According to the Organization for Road System Enhancement, traffic jams at tollgates have dropped dramatically in the last few years as more drivers have joined the ETC system.

To join up for the automatic toll collection service, motorists need the device and an ETC card issued by a credit card company. The device can be bought and installed at car dealerships, auto parts stores and repair shops.

Why are the discounts only available for ETC-equipped cars?

The transport ministry says the ETC system can keep track of a driver’s path to prevent misuse of the toll cuts.

Are subsidies available if you want to buy an ETC device?

Yes. The government-linked corporation Kosokudoro Koryu Suishin Zaidan (Expressway Exchange Promotion Organization) says it provides a subsidy of ¥5,250 for cars and ¥15,750 for motorcycles if you buy the device at a designated car shop.

Thanks to the subsidies, the number of device holders is skyrocketing. According to the transport ministry, 77.1 percent of drivers on expressways had the device in their car as of February.

Won’t the discounts make traffic worse?

They will, especially when they’re still new.

Tokyo Bay Aqualine, which started its own discounts last Friday, saw traffic volume jump 23 percent through Sunday from the same weekend last year.

On Saturday, the congestion stretched 25 km, according to East Nippon Expressway Co.

Some expressways will get really bad during the Golden Week holidays in late April and May, and the Bon midsummer holidays in August.

The transport ministry will be urging expressway operators to provide drivers with information on traffic conditions and warn them of jams in advance.

Will the discounts have any impact on the economy?

To a certain extent yes, but not as much as the cost required for the discounts, says Koichi Haji, chief economist at NLI Research Institute.

“This toll discount was initially considered as a countermeasure against sharply rising gasoline prices,” Haji said. “Now the measure is slightly out of focus” as the prices have since fallen.

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