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Okinawa Expressway drivers go ‘toll-free’

Date Posted: 2010-07-01

Travelers on 50 sections of 37 Japan expressways—including the Okinawa Expressway—found themselves in a bit more traffic Monday morning as an experimental toll-free program kicked off.

Traffic picked up by more than 55% across the country in the opening hours of the new program that’s slated to run through March 31st. In 14 of the areas, traffic more than doubled, while in 18 sections of the 1,652 kilometers of roadways in the experiment rose between 50-100%. The program, one of the Democratic Party of Japan’s campaign promises last year, will cost the government more than ¥100 billion. Only 20% of the country’s expressways are involved in the program, and the DPJ pledge is to ultimately eliminate tolls on all expressways.

That may happen, and the program could be expanded next year. Transport Minister Seiji Maehara has indicated more sections will become toll-free beginning in April after his ministry has studied the results of the pilot program. In the meantime, existing discounts for other zones not affected by the new toll-free program will continue, with a ¥1,000 maximum toll for ETC card users on weekends.

Okinawa’s expressway opened in 1975 between Kyoda and Ishikawa, and is toll free for the first time along the highway’s 57 kilometers. Officials caution expressway drivers they still must go through the turnstiles and take a ticket, and return it at the other end (where the meter will show ¥0 toll). The ticket process will be used to gather data on increased expressway usage.

A highway in Hokkaido, near Obihiro, saw traffic almost quadruple as the tollgates were opened Monday. Sixteen prefectures, including Osaka and Miyagi, are not reaping benefits of the new program.

Local bus companies predict the free expressway travel will result in both increased traffic for drivers and lost customers for them. The Okinawa Prefecture Trucking Association has issued a regulation stating all truck loads must be covered by nets or cloth tarps to prevent cargo from blowing out as a safety precaution on the expected increased traffic on Okinawa Expressway.

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