Which kind of roads are there in Japan?The network has a hierarchical structure that classifies from bottom to top municipal roads, prefectural roads, national highways, and national expressways. In some instances, they are further divided into subcategories. Their classification is based on their function and implicates their jurisdiction, administrator, and financing.
On the bottom of this pyramid-like hierarchy, municipal roads account for around 84 percent of the total network length. The municipalities administrate them and carry the costs for development, improvement, maintenance, and repair. However, up to half of development, improvement, and repair may be subsidized by the national government.
The same rules apply to prefectural roads, accounting for around 10.6 percent of the network. Apart from the prefectures, cities designated by government ordinance are the responsible authority. The next higher category is national highways, they may either be under prefectural (ca. 2.6 percent) or national (ca. 1.9 percent) jurisdiction, and the administrator may be the Minister of Land, Infrastructure Transport and Tourism (MLIT), the prefectures, or the designated cities. Accordingly, the burdens of development, improvement, maintenance, and repair are shouldered to a higher or lower degree by the national government.
On top of the pyramid are the national expressways, Japan’s roads for high-speed, supra-regional traffic (ca. 0.7 percent). By law, the administrator is the MLIT. However, the vast majority is not under MLIT jurisdiction but is toll roads under the control of the Expressway Companies (NEXCO). NEXCOs may also operate other road types (e.g., national highways, prefectural roads).
NEXCOs: Privatized road infrastructureThe NEXCOs came into being through the privatization of public bodies. NEXCO East, NEXCO Central, NEXCO West, Metropolitan Expressway, Hanshin Expressway, and Honshu-Shikoku Expressway construct, renew, and manage expressways in exchange for the right to collect toll fees. Until today they pursue the repayment of debts accumulated by the government in years preceding privatization. The laws encompassing privatization declared September 30, 2065, as the expiration date of the leasing contracts with the Japan Expressway Holding and Debt Repayment Agency (JEHDRA). NEXCOs may earn revenues with toll fees but also other businesses. They operate facilities on their routes, offering rest areas, gas, food, playgrounds, et cetera.
Toll fees can be paid in cash, but many vehicles are equipped with Electronic Toll Collection (ETC). The improved ETC 2.0, which is more than a mere charging device, is a bi-directional system that allows for communication between individual vehicles and road traffic control centers. The Intelligent Transport System (ITS) furthermore includes the Vehicle Information and Communication System (VICS). These analyze data in real-time to manage traffic immediately or to plan road construction for the future. Although most chargeable roads are operated by the NEXCOs, some are administered by public authorities. Often, those are scenic tourist routes.
The toll system ensures that the cost burden is carried by those using the roads and not by taxpayers in general. The privatization moreover created incentives to minimize costs. It was, therefore, mainly a disburden for the MLIT. Although MLIT infrastructure expenses are also expected to increase until fiscal 2044, municipalities struggling with demographic change and depopulation will have to find a way to finance and execute maintenance of likewise aging road infrastructure.