National

Cheap tolls may worsen traffic jams

by Megumi Yamanaka and Yuji Okada

Bloomberg

Prime Minister Taro Aso’s economic stimulus measures are about to unleash the nation’s worst highway traffic jams, toll operators and police say.

Aso’s ¥5 trillion spending program announced in October included discounted expressway charges on holidays. As workers prepare for Wednesday’s start of Golden Week, police expect more than 70 million people to travel within the country, creating traffic jams of 60 km or more.

“If there weren’t the discount, I wouldn’t be traveling to Aomori,” said Takeyuki Nagasawa, 32, who aims to drive 600 km to the prefecture. “I was thinking of going somewhere else, but when I worked out the budget, I found a one-way ticket by train or plane would equal the full cost of the Aomori trip.”

Aso cut the maximum highway toll price to ¥1,000 for any distance on weekends and holidays for vehicles equipped with electronic toll collection devices, which allow payment to be made without stopping.

The discount began last month and lasts until 2011. Without it, Nagasawa’s trip would cost at least ¥24,000 in tolls.

“During the Golden Week holiday this year we are going to see an increase in the number of people traveling, thanks to discounts in tolls, declines in fuel surcharges and the stronger yen,” said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute. He estimates Golden Week travelers will boost consumer spending by ¥22.3 billion and have a knock-on effect of ¥42.7 billion on the economy.

Golden Week, typically from April 29 to May 5, is so named because four holidays fall within seven days.

About 21.9 million people will spend at least one night away from home during the week, up 3 percent from a year ago, and will spend about ¥898.1 billion, according to JTB Corp., the country’s biggest travel agency. Including day trippers, the number of holidaymakers will be about 70.5 million, up by 5.4 million from a year ago, the National Police Agency said.

The economy is forecast to shrink 3.3 percent in the year that started April 1 after consumer spending, which accounts for more than half of the economy, fell in December to the lowest level since the government started to compile data in 1982.

The government plans to reimburse highway operators with about ¥500 billion in taxpayer money, according to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry. The budget was approved by the Diet in March.

“We’ve asked the highway operators to increase the number of workers to the highest levels and take needed actions to deal with the worst-ever traffic,” a transport ministry official said.

The nation’s four highway operators will take “considerable measures” to reduce congestion during Golden Week, the companies said in a joint statement on their Web sites. Staffing levels will be increased by 30 percent to manage traffic, while the number of toll booth operators will be increased by 69 percent. The companies plan to set up 666 temporary toilets in congestion areas, triple the number a year ago.

“Our challenge is how much we can cut the traffic jams,” said spokesman Osamu Iwasaki at Central Nippon Expressway Co. The company will offer ¥5,000 shopping tickets for drivers who use highways during off-peak times around midnight.

West Nippon Expressway Co. will hand out disposable car toilets on May 2 at the three rest stations on the Chugoku Expressway, spokesman Yoshinari Goto said.

“We’ve taken this special action before when natural disasters disrupted traffic, but it’s the first time we’re doing it because of a traffic jam,” he said.

Since Aso’s discount came into effect last month, traffic on some highways has already doubled on weekends, operators say. The Seto Chuo Expressway, one of the bridges that connects Shikoku to Honshu, carried 2.3 times more drivers in the past month, operator Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Expressway Corp. said.

One of them was Masanori Taniguchi, 34, who drove about 530 km one weekend with his wife to visit Shikoku for bowls of the island’s famous “udon” noodles. The couple drove for seven hours to eat at four noodle restaurants during their two-day trip, sleeping in the car.

“We got trapped in a jam on the way back,” he said. “It was tiring to drive all that way, but we want to do it again to try out different places.” Taniguchi said. The toll discount saved him more than ¥20,000.

For Golden Week, about 37,000 additional police officers will be on duty to deal with accidents, emergencies and crime around major tourist spots, the NPA said.

Nagasawa is unfazed by the thought of the traffic snarls. He said he plans to sleep in his car during the four-day Aomori journey, to keep the cost of his trip below ¥50,000.

“I heard the warning about the heavy traffic,” Nagasawa said. “It will be interesting to see how bad it will be.”

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