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Friday, July 9, 2010
Startup to toll-free driving
The government on June 28 started making part of the nation's expressway system toll free. The trial — which is being carried out along 50 sections of 37 routes mainly in the countryside, and covers 1,652 km or about 20 percent of the expressway system — could eventually lead to an entirely toll-free system.
Traffic volume in those sections on July 3 and July 4, the first Saturday and Sunday of the trial, increased 67 percent and 78 percent, respectively. On the preceding weekdays, traffic volume was 73 to 80 percent greater than usual.
The reason that the increases were smaller on Saturday and Sunday than on the preceding weekdays is that even before the trial started, traffic volume had already increased because of the Saturday-Sunday ¥1,000 cap on ordinary cars that the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito administration introduced. On average, traffic volume on ordinary highways running parallel to expressways dropped about 20 percent.
Making expressways toll free was a main promise in the Democratic Party of Japan's manifesto for the 2009 Lower House election. The DPJ administration had called for ¥600 billion in the fiscal 2010 budget to carry out the trial. That amount was slashed to ¥100 billion due to financial constraints.
Tourism-related business operators hope a toll-free system will boost the number of visitors. Some predict it will result in decreasing distribution costs for goods. It could also lead to traffic congestion, and deal a hard blow to public transportation companies, thus depriving some people in the countryside of transport.
The government should make serious efforts to strengthen public transport so that the elderly, students and others can go to hospitals and schools and shop without inconvenience. It is logical that people who use expressways should shoulder the cost to maintain expressways they use. Fiscal conditions at present do not allow the government to use tax money to pay for all expressway tolls. It also must carefully examine the effects of the toll-free trial, including total carbon dioxide emissions.