For whom the road tolls

TOKYO —

Here’s a word of advice to anyone who was considering an epic road trip this Golden Week: consider taking the train. Japan’s roads are set to be even busier than usual during the national holidays, thanks in no small part to a government scheme to lower tolls on expressways around the country.

Life is certainly a lot more affordable for motorists now than it was last summer, when record crude oil prices sent the cost of gas rocketing up toward 200 yen per liter at the pump. In the last few months, it’s fallen to a little over half that much. And if that wasn’t enough to put lead in your pencil, the Aso administration, desperate to ingratiate itself with the electorate, has come up with the bright idea of slashing Japan’s extortionate highway tolls, making driving around the country almost—whisper it—cheap.

The government’s plan is to create a maximum national highway toll of 1,000 yen on weekends and holidays for vehicles equipped with the electronic toll collection (ETC) system, which allows cars to pass through toll gates automatically and have the charges billed directly to a credit card. Reductions of 30-50% on other roads, such as city expressways, are also included in the scheme.

The new discounts are far from straightforward: everything depends on which highway, which day, what time, type of vehicle and, possibly, what blood type you are. But the upshot is that you’ll save real money. A recent weekend trip from Tokyo to Gunma and back, for instance, cost me 3,000 yen less than it would have done beforehand.

All of this has been welcomed by impoverished drivers and, unsurprisingly, has led to a buying frenzy for ETC hardware. Prior to the government’s announcement, only 30% of vehicles had ETC systems installed; after it, they were selling at a rate of over 300,000 a week.

The downside is that cheaper fees result in more traffic—and possibly lunatic levels of congestion. A spokesperson for East Nippon Expressway Company (Nexco) told Metropolis that there was a 28% increase in traffic compared to last year during the inaugural weekend of the scheme.

One of the “beneficiaries” of this was the Tokyo Bay Aqualine, the 14-km tunnel-causeway that connects Chiba with the Tokyo/Yokohama megalopolis. With tolls slashed from 3,000 yen to 1,000 yen, Aqualine traffic was up by 20% according to newspaper reports, and the service area on the island that links the tunnel with the causeway was overflowing. This caused problems for JR Bus Kanto, which had to re-route its highway bus service as a result.

“It has got busier on weekends, and we’re seeing more drivers who only take their cars on weekends,” said a spokesperson for the company. “We’re also seeing more traffic accidents and broken-down cars than before.”

When asked if the toll reductions were a good idea, the Nexco spokesperson sucked in most of the available oxygen in the Kanto area before saying: “Nexco can provide no comments on government/political measures with regard to reduced tolls.” We’ll take that as a “No,” then. They may have to get used to the idea, though: the current discounts will run for two years, and the Democratic Party of Japan has said that it will eliminate highway tolls altogether if it ever comes to power.

So we’re going to save money, right? Er, probably not. The government had to set aside a cool 500 billion yen to pay for the current reductions. And where did that money come from? If you’re a taxpayer, you’ll find the answer in the mirror. Happy driving!

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

  • 0

    bcbrownboy

    All the folks b!tching about the reduced tolls must live near excellent public transportation. Here in the countryside, NO ONE is complaining. We couldn't afford to go outside our little danchi before this reduction! So shut up city folks.

  • 0

    bakabaka

    If you live in a danchi and near a toll road then you sure as hell aint in the real inaka. None of my neighbors use the nearest expressway and have no plans to start.

  • 0

    Richard_the_First

    GW will be hell. The tolls are outrageous though, and the discount is welcome.

  • 0

    Sarge

    Saw a photo of the traffic jam on the Tomei in the paper this morning. I'm glad I'm not stuck in that.

  • 0

    pawatan

    The tolls are still too high. We pay high enough taxes as it is, why not a break on the tolls?

  • 0

    Apsara

    I like this line: "the Nexco spokesperson sucked in most of the available oxygen in the Kanto area before saying..."- that's funny. Anyone who's lived in Japan for a while has seen that kind of "muzukashii desu ne" teeth-sucking many a time.

  • 0

    gogogo

    The government does do any sort of investment, banks give zero interest, everything is taxed, the government relies on a large population so they can tax it. The government really needs to invest more, not just into other countries money or gold, but start working their money. Their current system of taxing is 1000 years old.

  • 0

    blue_monday

    Makes you wonder why they want everyone to install ETC. So they can track you and impose an emissions tax on you in the future ?

  • 0

    Potsu

    It's the biggest crock of shxt...what is it with people travelling from Tokyo to Tochigi just to get a bowl of noodles from a parking area ????? People here have a serious lack of things to do ....

  • 0

    pawatan

    Makes you wonder why they want everyone to install ETC. So they can track you and impose an emissions tax on you in the future ?

    They can track you with or without ETC -- ever noticed the N-System cameras? They track plates...

  • 0

    hakujinsensei

    one of the great boondogles of all time as aso n his crew try to buy popularity. robbing peter to pay paul never results in anything positive unless you hate peter...

    when I first got to Japan a million years ago, like all americans, I detested the tolls. but I quickly came to realize that with the incredibly high population density here, the absence of ridiculously high registration fees, taxes, and tolls, the ability to own and operate a car would be affordable to too many people making road travel impossible. the simple fact is there is not enough roads for everyone to drive and we need to actively discourage it and taxes and tolls are the most efficient way to do so.

    the current reduction of tolls has only served to causse me grief as I work on the road traveling to and from.... before I had the freedom to choose uncongested tollways and pay for the time and angst savings or buck up and joust my way down the lower roads. now, I am forced to slog either way...

    what should really happen is a toll that changes with the traffic flow to reduce congestion at peak times and encourage use at times of low use... I guess that would be too simple.

  • 0

    bcbrownboy

    "The government’s plan is to create a maximum national highway toll of 1,000 yen on weekends and holidays"

    No no no - here's another parrot! I just paid 1,250 with my ETC card on the Joban expy. Why not check the accuracy of your sources?

  • 0

    Andrew66

    bcbrownboy I think reduction is not same inside metropolitan areas of Tokyo/Osaka.

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