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The Hatoyama administration has decided to abolish tolls for 50 sections of 37 expressways in Japan on a trial basis. This experiment, which covers some 18 percent of the nation’s expressway network, will last from June to the end of March 2011. Making the nation’s expressways toll-free was one of the main campaign promises of the Democratic Party of Japan, which has said the policy will lower transport costs and revitalize local economies.

But it also threatens several problems. More tax money will be needed to maintain and repair expressways. More traffic means more greenhouse gases. The public transportation system could see customer numbers fall, which could lead to bus, ferry and train companies being forced to reduce or terminate services.

On Feb. 12, two firms announced that they would cease to provide Inland Sea ferry services between Takamatsu in Shikoku and Uno in Honshu as of March 26, citing the effects of expressway-toll discounts. This could be just the start. JR Hokkaido says that plans to waive tolls on expressway sections that cover about half of Hokkaido will impact directly on JR railway services, causing dire financial consequences.

The administration has not explained how it decided which expressway sections would be part of its toll-free experiment. Expressway charges will be removed throughout the whole of Okinawa Prefecture and for many sections in such regions as Tohoku, Sanin and Shikoku. Since the toll-free sections are concentrated in areas where traffic volume is low, it will be difficult to measure the economic impact of the changes.

The administration should not pursue its campaign promise if doing so will negatively impact the nation’s public transport network. A policy that maintains the “user pays” principle is preferable. In a recent poll that asked people to name campaign promises that the government should not carry out, 60 percent nominated the toll-free expressway policy. The government would be wise to take notice of this result.

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