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20 years after opening, Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line expressway toll still under debate

The Umihotaru Parking Area along the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line expressway is pictured from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter on Dec. 15, 2017. (Mainichi)

The Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line expressway connecting Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, to Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture, will celebrate 20 years in operation on Dec. 18, but the toll for the economy-boosting tunnel connecting opposite sides of Tokyo Bay is still being debated.

    "It's been a long time." "How are you?" It's Dec. 1, and Chiba Gov. Kensaku Morita and Minister of Finance Taro Aso exchange greetings at the Ministry of Finance in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district. It's then that Gov. Morita hands Aso a written request. One of the main pillars of the document is keeping the ETC toll for regular vehicles on the Aqua-Line at 800 yen. While it's been eight years since the price was lowered to the figure, Morita must continue to occasionally make these requests as the toll amount is still "temporary."

    When the Aqua-Line was opened in 1997 in hopes of breaking the isolation of Chiba Prefecture's Boso Peninsula, the toll for a regular car was 4,000 yen -- five to seven times higher than that for other expressways similar in length to the Aqua-Line's roughly 15.1 kilometers. As a result, while it was estimated that 25,000 vehicles would pass under the bay per day, the actual number barely topped half of that, and in 2000, the toll was lowered to 3,000 yen. It was further lowered to a 2,320 yen ETC toll in 2002, but neither change had much of a lasting effect.

    Running on a campaign promise of lowering the basic toll to 800 yen, Morita was first elected as Chiba governor in March 2009. He soon visited then-Prime Minister Aso at the prime minister's office to speak with him directly about the expressway. Aso pushed back, saying there was no way it could work, but Morita did not give up. Instead, he compromised by promising that the Chiba Prefectural Government would pay half of the 1 billion yen in yearly costs to operate the expressway, and that August, the toll was lowered as a "social experiment."

    According to Tetsuhiko Ishiwata, 70, who was the deputy governor of Chiba at the time and involved in the negotiations with the central government, Morita once received permission to lower the cost to 1,000 yen. Ishiwatari was satisfied, but Morita continued to fight for his promise. "If he wasn't so set (on 800 yen), then the toll would probably be 1,000 yen right now," Ishiwata recalled.

    In the eight years since the drop in the toll, traffic on the Aqua-Line has doubled. The population and tax revenue of Kisarazu has increased with the number of workers commuting by bus on the expressway, and in 2016, the benchmark price of residential land in the area saw the largest increase in Chiba Prefecture. A January 2017 prefectural report estimated the economic effects of the lower toll from April 2014 to September 2016 at 86.9 billion yen -- tourism revenue at 72.8 billion yen, facilities investments by companies at 3.6 billion yen for things such as transport, and an increase in production value of 10.5 billion yen.

    On the other hand, how to lessen traffic during the busiest hours of weekday evenings and weekends has become an issue. This month, East Nippon Expressway Co. started using artificial intelligence to predict traffic jams and broadcasting the information to hopefully better distribute usage and alleviate gridlock.

    Still, many parts of the large prefecture have yet to benefit from the Aqua-Line, such as northeastern municipalities, and are left wondering just how much longer the prefectural government will continue to shoulder the cost of its operation.

    Even after the "social experiment" period ended in fiscal 2014, the prefecture has still continued to spilt the cost of the discounted toll with the central government. The toll for other vehicle types is also reduced by about two-thirds -- such as offering a 1,320 yen toll for large vehicles.

    Chiba Prefectural Assembly member and Kisarazu real estate company owner Hiroshi Takahashi, 55, who at one time participated in petition movements calling for the lowering of the toll, said, "It's with a sense of crisis that I appeal for making the price change permanent."

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