Akihiro Ohata, the new transport minister, says a clear position on toll-free expressways needs to be established by three years.

“We need to proceed (with the plan) step by step. It’s important to come up with a conclusion in two to three years’ time,” the new chief of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism said in a recent group interview.

Making expressways toll-free was one of the pillars of the Democratic Party of Japan’s platform for the 2009 Lower House election that brought the DPJ to power.

The transport ministry has secured Cabinet approval to spend ¥120 billion continuing the toll-free trial for another year, but this still needs to clear the Diet. And looking forward, the administration has yet to figure out where it is going to get the estimated ¥1.3 trillion it says will be needed every year if all expressways are effectively made toll-free, excluding the Tokyo-area Shuto Expressway and Osaka-area Hanshin Expressway.

The government began the toll-free trials on 50 sections of 37 expressways, or about 20 percent of the national expressway network, in June.

According to results from June to December, the daily average volume of traffic on the toll-free sections nearly doubled, while the volume on public roads running parallel to the expressways decreased by about 20 percent.

Ohata noted that the increase in greenhouse gases stemming from the increase in expressway traffic and the impact on other public transportation systems also need to be discussed.

“The direction we are heading is toll-free. But we must weigh the pros and cons of a toll-free expressway system, including its influences on other forms of public transport. We also need to listen to users’ voices before coming up with a conclusion,” he said.

Ohata served as minister of economy, trade and industry for about four months before being tabbed for his new position in the Jan. 14 Cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

In his time at METI, which he described as very interesting, Ohata dealt with the rare earths mineral crisis and promoted cooperation on nuclear energy in the Middle East.

Now that he’s in charge of the nation’s infrastructure, he hopes to draw up a vision of how Japan should look two decades from now.

“We should come up with how Japan should be in 2030. We have to make a future vision and examine what kind of road or railway systems we need in 20 years’ time. That’s the big role (of the ministry),” he said.

On aviation policy, Ohata said the nation’s airports are falling behind those of other countries, where 24-hour operations are becoming the norm.

“Haneda airport (in Tokyo) now operates 24 hours, but there are limits on the number of flights. In that sense Kansai International Airport is the only airport in Japan that fully operates on a 24-hour basis,” he said. “But (airlines) steer clear of Kansai International because of its high landing fees.

“We need to review what kind of aviation system we must create,” Ohata said.

A former engineer at Hitachi Ltd., Ohata entered the world of politics in 1986 by winning a seat in the Ibaraki Prefectural Assembly. He was first elected to the Lower House in 1990.

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