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Toll-free highways ensure smooth holiday travel

Xinhua | Updated: 2013-02-09 13:26

BEIJING - Millions of road warriors began to enjoy free usage of highways on Saturday, officially kicking off China's most important annual holiday.

Passenger vehicles with seven seats or fewer will be exempt from highway tolls from the start of February 9 to the end of February 15 in order to expedite traffic and reduce travel costs, according to a previous announcement from the Ministry of Transport.

The rest of China's toll roads, bridges and tunnels are also free for qualified cars and motorcycles, the announcement said.

Zhang Meng, a clerk at a public institution in Beijing, said he will drive home with his friends to their home city in Central China's Henan province on Sunday.

He used to pay more than 200 yuan ($31.8 dollars) for the 500-km journey. "But we don't have to worry about that this time," he said.

The toll-free expressways will not only save drivers on toll fees, but also allow them to avoid waiting in lines near toll gates, as the ministry has asked local transportation authorities to implement a ticketless policy to avoid long lines.

The move was prompted by unexpected highway congestion that occurred during last year's National Day holiday in October, when toll-free measures first took effect but electronic tickets were retained. As a result, cars waiting for tickets jammed the lanes of the toll gates.

To kill the seemingly endless waiting times, passengers got out of the cars, played cards and skipped rope in the highways-turned-parking lots.

The State Council, or China's cabinet, approved a free-pass program last August to lift road tolls for passenger cars taking highways during major Chinese holidays.

The toll-free policy has triggered booming orders at car rental companies, as people who have failed to secure a train ticket have turned to renting cars to visit friends and relatives.

Data from car rental company AVIS showed that nearly all of its vehicles in major cities have been booked, while around 60 percent of its passenger cars in mid-size cities have been reserved.

Prompted by the increasing orders, rental prices for some cars have witnessed triple or even quadruple growth.

Rented or not, a record number of vehicles will carry travelers to reunite with their families over the next seven days.

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