Under a system introduced by the former Liberal Democrat Party-Komeito coalition government, set to expire at the end of March, vehicles using the Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) system enjoy a variety of expressway toll discounts, including a ¥1,000 ceiling on weekends and holidays.

From April 1, however, the Democratic Party of Japan government will implement a new system that sets the ceiling for expressway tolls at ¥2,000 and ¥1,000 every day of the week for ordinary cars and mini-cars, respectively, whether they use ETC or not. The current ¥1,000 weekend and holiday cap will remain in place for ETC users. Making the expressways toll-free was one of the DPJ’s main election pledges in its manifesto for the 2009 Lower House election, which brought the party to power. This new system, however, is seriously flawed. Not only will it cost the financially strapped government large sums of money, it will also lead to increased congestion and add to greenhouse gas emissions.

Using some ¥2 trillion in funds that the LDP-Komeito government had secured for its toll policy, the DPJ will be able to continue the new policy through fiscal 2013 on most of the nation’s expressways, but it has no idea of how to secure new funds once the ¥2 trillion is gone. This is utterly irresponsible.

The current system provides an incentive for drivers to buy vehicles with ETC devices, which greatly reduce traffic jams at toll gates. But because the new system extends hefty discounts to non-ETC drivers as well, many more people will be encouraged to take to the road, especially on weekends, and the resulting traffic jams will be much bigger than the large ones that now plague us.

The new toll system is also more complex than the existing one, so it will likely cause confusion. For example, eco-friendly cars with ETC will qualify for a daily ¥1,000 toll cap, but drivers must register to get the discount. And in 2012, the Shuto and Hanshin Expressways will change from a flat rate to a distance-based system.

Finally, the new system’s expansion of expressway toll discounts will take more business away from public transport firms that operate trains, buses and ferries. They are already suffering under the current system.

The Kan government should go back to the drawing board and devise a reasonable toll system that is fiscally responsible and takes traffic conditions and the environment into greater account.

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