Work to Obtain Users’ Understanding for Continued Financial Burden

Plans to make expressways toll-free are set to be shelved. The government and companies that construct and operate expressways must make every effort to gain the understanding of expressway users by carefully explaining why they continue to ask the people using the roads to bear the burden of tolls.

The government approved at a Cabinet meeting draft legislation for legal revisions to extend the period of collecting expressway tolls to up to 2115. The collection period is currently set to last until 2065, so the revisions would extend this by a maximum of 50 years.

When the Japan Highway Public Corporation was privatized in 2005, the government said that about ¥40 trillion in debt incurred for the construction of expressways would be paid off by 2050, and that the expressways would become toll-free thereafter.

However, the collapse of ceiling panels in the Sasago Tunnel, which occurred in 2012 on the Chuo Expressway in Yamanashi Prefecture, prompted inspections that revealed the need for major repairs on expressways across the nation. Therefore, in 2014 the government extended the toll-collection period to 2065.

The collection period will be lengthened again. The extension is attributed to an increase in repair costs due to the aging and deterioration of expressways, but the prospects may have been poor from the beginning.

Half of Japan’s expressway sections were built at least 30 years ago. As the aging and deterioration of bridges, tunnels, pavements and other infrastructure progresses, repairs are essential to prevent a recurrence of serious infrastructure accidents.

Expressways have the benefit of reducing travel times. It is reasonable to think that maintenance costs should be covered by tolls collected from expressway users, rather than taxes paid by the public at large.

Convincing the people who use expressways is crucial. To this end, it is imperative to make transparent how much the likely cost of repairs, as well as how much toll revenue will be required.

In January, three expressway operators — East Nippon Expressway Co., Central Nippon Expressway Co. and West Nippon Expressway Co. — released new cost estimates that called for an additional ¥1 trillion for bridge repairs and other expenses. Combined with estimates from Metropolitan Expressway Co. and Hanshin Expressway Co., the additional cost will total about ¥1.5 trillion.

The full cost of repairs, including the already estimated amount, will reach about ¥6.8 trillion. Repair costs could increase further partly due to advanced technology that makes it easier to detect deterioration and damage with devices such as drones and small cameras.

Along with technological advancements in such areas as automated driving, additional investment in road equipment is also likely to be required. To achieve decarbonization, it is also an urgent task to expand the installation of chargers for electric vehicles in service areas. There also will be further costs for reducing traffic congestion and implementing safety measures.

It is hoped that the expressway companies will make this situation widely known to users.

If tolls continue to be collected, they must be used to repair roads and improve their functions. It is unacceptable to use the increased financial resources to build roads with low cost efficiency.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 6, 2023)