One of the most contentious components of the Democratic Party of Japan’s manifesto is the pledge to make all expressways free. In media survey after media survey, the portion of respondents who don’t support the proposal has been consistently between 60 and 65 percent. The Liberal Democratic Party has used this perceived anxiety to reinforce its portrayal of the new ruling party as dangerously spendthrift.

Of course, it was the LDP that set the country on the road to economic ruin when it was the ruling party, but it’s important to understand who actually benefits from the current toll system and who may benefit if it is done away with.

The LDP and the media have managed to dominate the argument in the simplest terms: If tolls are eliminated, the cost of expressway construction and maintenance will be borne by taxpayers regardless of whether or not they use the expressways or even own cars. But the issue isn’t that simple.

Last February, before the LDP lowered nationwide tolls to ¥1,000 on weekends, Sumio Mabuchi, the DPJ’s roads expert, asked the land ministry for the results of its research into what would happen if tolls were reduced. Mabuchi thought the research report was incomplete and wondered if the ministry’s research center had projected what would happen if tolls were eliminated altogether, which has been a DPJ platform policy since 2003. The land minister at the time, Kazuyoshi Kaneko, told him they hadn’t.

But five days later Kaneko changed his story and said the research center had looked at the possibility of toll-free highways. An anonymous official in the ministry was quoted by the Asahi Shimbun as saying that the report was suppressed because its findings showed the DPJ proposal in a good light.

Apparently, the research group had carried out the study back in 2007 “when there was no realistic prospect of the DPJ becoming the ruling party,” said the source. But as the DPJ started discussing the matter more intensely, the land ministry buried the findings deeper and deeper.

The ministry became nervous in the spring of 2008 when the DPJ-dominated Upper House effectively repealed the gasoline tax for a month before the Lower House reinstated it. Some bureaucratic entities owe their existence to the gasoline tax and expressway tolls. If either is abolished, they would cease to have a purpose.

Mabuchi is now senior vice land minister, and while his relationship with ministry bureaucrats is sensitive, they know they have to work together. Consequently, it may take longer to realize toll-free highways, and in September the DPJ announced that some expressways may become free in the spring on an “experimental” basis.

As far as the public is concerned, it is not Mabuchi’s embattled relationship with bureaucrats that matters, but rather how abolishing tolls will affect their taxes. The revenue from expressway tolls and other road-related sources is about ¥2.5 trillion a year, which is used for construction of new expressways and maintenance of existing ones. The land ministry projects that if the roads are made toll-free, revenues will decrease by ¥2 trillion. However, Mabuchi pointed out on a TV Asahi talk show in early September, before the current Cabinet was formed, that this doesn’t mean the government has to make up 100 percent of that shortfall. By reducing road-related revenues, the government will be forced to look at each new project in terms of “necessity.” Consequently, the process of building new roads will be made more efficient. He estimated that ¥1.3 trillion in taxes a year would be needed to not only build new roads and maintain old ones, but also to pay off the debt for past road construction.

It is this debt that defines the road issue. When the government started building expressways 50 years ago it pledged that they would be free once they were paid for. The reason they aren’t free is that the government never stopped building them, a development that has less to do with the need for new roads than with the needs of politicians and bureaucrats to maintain their positions.

But while many people in the central government have a stake in preventing expressways from becoming toll-free, there are just as many in local governments who want to make sure it happens. Kamon Iizumi, the governor of Tokushima Prefecture, has said that the LDP’s toll discount caused a 51 percent increase in traffic from the Kansai region to his area on weekends, with an attendant 15 percent boost in tourist-related business. Tokushima is only a half-hour by car from Kobe, which means it could be a bedroom community for the Kansai region, but the exorbitant tolls on bridges that connect Honshu to Shikoku have effectively prevented that from happening. More significantly, many experts think that toll-free roads will make it easier for companies to relocate outside of major cities because their transportation costs will be greatly reduced, thus revitalizing regions depressed by depopulation.

The loudest economic point against toll-free roads is being made by operators of trains, buses and ferries, who claim they will lose customers. As a result, these operators say, some lines may shut down and people who don’t own cars will lose transportation options. There’s no doubt that less affluent people with cars will drive more if tolls are abolished, but arguing that current tolls indirectly support public transportation is a backward way of looking at the matter, since it implies that only people with enough money should be allowed to use expressways that have been built for everyone.

If the aim is to have people use public transportation so as to reduce emissions and relieve traffic congestion, the logical thing to do is make public transportation more affordable and more convenient. It may not be stipulated in the Constitution, but people have a right to get out of the house.