On June 20, the expressway toll system was changed to accommodate victims of the March 11 triple disasters. People who have been certified as having suffered from the earthquake and tsunami, or as evacuees due to the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, are now exempt from toll payments on expressways in the Tohoku region.
Buses and trucks using expressways in Tohoku are also exempt from paying tolls. Disaster victims who must travel between their homes and temporary shelters will benefit from the policy. The volume of commercial and relief goods delivered to the devastated areas may increase.
The government has abolished the ¥1,000 cap for passenger cars traveling on weekends and national holidays, as well as the toll-free tests at 50 sections of the nation’s expressways. But the government is considering expanding toll-free travel to all vehicles using expressways in the Tohoku region for a period of about one year starting this summer.
The government should heed the criticism from Mr. Osamu Suzuki, head of the Japan Long Course Ferry Service Association. He has pointed out that under the new policy, buses and trucks that start from or arrive at toll gates in Tohoku can go anywhere in the country without paying tolls, and that this would lead to a decrease in the number of large vehicles using long-distance ferry services and jeopardize the ferry industry itself.
The ¥1,000 cap system was a boon for a number of tourist spots but financially damaged public transportation companies, such as railways. The problem with the nation’s expressway toll system is that it is changed too frequently.
The ¥1,000 cap system was introduced two years ago when the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito were in power. The toll-free tests were started in June 2010. But they were abolished this time.
In February, the government decided to introduce a ¥2,000 cap system for passenger cars on weekdays and to expand the toll-free tests. But this plan was postponed because of the March 11 disasters. The government now has a good chance to develop an expressway system that will not rely on tax revenues, and will reduce the gap in traffic volume between weekdays and weekends.