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Japan's Pricey Roads Taking Their Toll

Transportation: The high fees have prompted criticism that the country is building projects to break records. Officials defend them as necessary.

June 29, 1998|JOSEPH COLEMAN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ON THE AQUALINE EXPRESSWAY, Japan — In the world's longest underwater highway tunnel, you'll find restaurants, cafes, gift shops and a spacious parking garage, all in the middle of Tokyo Bay.

But you won't find many cars on the Aqualine Expressway, and it's easy to figure out why--a 4,000 yen, or $32, toll for a 15-minute ride.

Just about anywhere there's an expressway or large bridge in Japan, there's a hefty toll that goes along with it. Faced with the highest tolls in the world, many Japanese drivers are saying they'd rather take the long way home.

"The toll is just too expensive," said Yukio Miyamoto, who recently took a ride with a friend to see the Aqualine tunnel-bridge. If he had to cross the bay again? "I'd just drive around it"--which means an extra 50 miles.

Highway officials say the reason for high tolls is simple: It takes money to build on Japan's expensive, mountainous, earthquake-prone terrain. And reliance on loans instead of taxes means the money has to be paid back, with interest.

They also defend the building as needed to spur development in relatively isolated parts of Japan and make it easier to get around a country that suffers from small roads and lengthy traffic jams.

But the painful tolls--a total of $18.4 billion collected last year--have prompted criticism that Japan is on an extravagant campaign to snare Guinness Book entries for the world's longest tunnels and bridges, whether or not anyone will use them.

The $12-billion Aqualine, for instance, crosses Tokyo Bay from Kawasaki to Kisarazu with the world's longest underwater highway tunnel (5.9 miles) and a 2.7-mile bridge.

The world's longest suspension bridge is the newly opened $4-billion Akashi Kaikyo Bridge with a 6,532-foot center span. It's part of a 55-mile expressway from Kobe to Shikoku with a $48 toll.

Some critics say the giant projects symbolize the chummy relations between the government and the construction industry that have led to bid-rigging, unneeded building and inflated price tags.

"People have this notion that you are more if you build more," said Sugao Morioka, a spokesman for the Japan Automotive Federation. "But people forget the part that you have to pay for it."

Tolls are only part of the pricey picture for Japan's drivers. Biannual auto inspections can cost more than $1,000, and gasoline costs $3 a gallon, half of that tax.

Whether the tolls are justified, many of Japan's infrastructure projects--often conceived or built during the high-flying 1980s--are feeling the pinch.

The Aqualine, for example, averaged only 13,900 cars a day in the month after its Dec. 18 opening--well below the 25,000 drivers a day the project is banking on.

At the Seto Inland Sea Bridge in western Japan, a dearth of drivers willing to pay its $53 toll has forced the bridge authority to lengthen the payback period for its debt and slash the toll by a third.

And it's not just fancy engineering displays that are in trouble. Some toll roads around Japan are also not making money because of low ridership.

Japan Highway Public Corp., which oversees most of Japan's toll roads, is touchy about the prices. Officials begrudgingly acknowledge the tolls are higher "than any other country we've compared them to."

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