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Yellow lights flashing on toll-free plan

People in regional areas have been tossed about by the Democratic Party of Japan's repeatedly changing policy on reviewing highway tolls, in connection with its pledge to make all highways toll-free in the future.

Though the DPJ promises to gradually make all highways toll-free in its manifesto for the upcoming House of Councillors election, the feasibility of the promise is uncertain, as the party has not found a concrete way to secure funding for the measure.

Hironobu Otsuka, a 57-year-old man from Mihama Ward, Chiba, who recently took voluntary retirement from his job, visited Katsurahama beach in Kochi with his wife on June 8, a weekday and the day the Cabinet of Prime Minister Naoto Kan was launched.

The beach has been popular recently due to a boom for Sakamoto Ryoma, a legendary samurai who contributed to the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

"I had high expectations because the DPJ pledged that [highway tolls] would be lowered on weekdays from June under new fee systems. The party should realize the toll-free system in the future," Otsuka said.

There has also been opposition to the new highway toll systems announced in April by the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry. Under the new system, the one-way fee for passenger cars to cross highway bridges from Honshu to Shikoku islands on weekends and holidays will rise from 2,000 yen to 5,000 yen.

This is because the tolls of bridges connecting Honshu and Shikoku will be raised from 1,000 yen to 3,000 yen in consideration of ferry companies' income, and because the maximum tolls of highways will also rise from 1,000 yen on weekends and holidays to 2,000 yen every day.

Of the 2.3 trillion yen needed to cover the loss from lowering highway tolls, the new toll system aimed to earmark 1.4 trillion yen for the improvement and construction of highways, in consideration of calls for road projects from regional areas.

But implementation of the measure, which was to start in June, was postponed because some ruling party members said it would effectively raise highway tolls overall.

At the same time, road maintenance and construction projects, the funding for which was expected to be secured under the new toll systems, stalled. For example, a project to increase to four the number of lanes on the Tateyamado motorway, which connects Chiba and southern Boso Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture, was postponed.

"If traffic jams are eased, tourists could know more about the attractiveness of the Boso [Peninsula]," said Masami Takahashi, 54. Takahashi works in Miyoshimura, a rest stop in Minamiboso, Chiba Prefecture, a city famous for blueberry picking.

Though a limited number of highway sections will be made toll-free on June 28, these sections account for 1,652 kilometers, or about 20 percent of all highways in the nation. In terms of revenue, they equal only 5 percent of the tolls from all highways nationwide--1.9 trillion yen--excluding the Tokyo metropolitan and Hanshin expressways. This is because the DPJ estimated that 1.3 trillion yen would ultimately be needed to cover the lost revenue from making highways toll-free in its manifesto for last year's House of Representatives election, but the government's serious fiscal state reduced the total amount of government funding for the measure in fiscal 2010 to 100 billion yen.

In its manifesto for the upcoming upper house election announced Thursday, the DPJ vows to gradually make highways toll-free, while paying attention to the results of this measure and other public transportation businesses, but it did not mention how to secure funding.

Unless funding is secured, further highway areas cannot be made toll-free.

At a press conference Friday, Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Seiji Maehara said future measures for toll-free highways "will be drafted by the ministry, and I'll make decisions in consultation with the chief cabinet secretary and other ministers."

The remark indicated that the government had withdrawn its policy of gradually making expressways toll-free through fiscal 2012.

It is also possible that the Tomei, Meishin and other major expressways will ultimately be excluded from toll-free routes. If this happens, drivers will be even more angry.

(Jun. 21, 2010)
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