When Does a $5 Toll Cost $30? When You’re Driving a Rental Car

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With the rise of “cashless” turnpikes, where tolls are collected via a device such as EZ-Pass rather than at tollbooths, rental car companies have found two ways to pass those costs on to their customers, both unpopular: Customers can choose to rent a pass for as much as $20 a day, which they’ll pay whether or not they pass through a toll plaza, or they can pay the fines for going through the lanes without a pass, plus a hefty processing fee tacked on by the rental company.

Customers are ticked at what seems like yet another charge, like fees for checked baggage. After a Florida Dollar Rent a Car added $30 in administrative fees to a bill for $2.74 in tolls, Roxanna Usher of Redwood Valley, Calif., vented her spleen on the entire state. “I’m angry beyond belief and can’t even imagine coming back to your state,” she wrote in a Jan. 13 complaint to Florida’s attorney general. “Talk about a corrupt state! It’s disgusting what you’re doing to tourists—the mainstay of your economy.”

Florida’s attorney general has received nearly 100 similar complaints in the past 18 months from rental car customers regarding the toll violation fees. The office is investigating fee complaints from customers of Dollar Thrifty, Avis Budget Group (CAR), and Enterprise Holdings, according to spokesman Whitney Ray. The issue has also prompted consumer lawsuits by renters in Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Washington state.

Paula Rivera, a spokesman for Dollar’s parent, Hertz Global Holdings (HTZ), says customers have paid more than 57 million tolls since 2006 with the company’s PlatePass electronic payment device. The $15 fee for each toll violation “is assessed to cover the actual costs of handling the tolls for our customers,” she said in an e-mail.

Many consumers also fume about a daily dun from rental companies for electronic-payment devices—even when they don’t use a toll road. Others contend that pricing for the devices is often too expensive—$20.49 per day in New York City, for example—and motivate a renter to skip the gadget and face charges later. (The Northeast has the highest tolls in the U.S.)

Because of their huge fleets, rental car companies face an enormous liability related to toll-road violations and need some financial protections to address that exposure, says Charles Territo, a spokesman for American Traffic Solutions, a Tempe (Ariz.) company that handles collections for Hertz’s (HTZ) three major rental brands. “A consumer getting a violation is one thing, but a fleet with that same car getting multiple violations day after day, from multiple renters, it has the potential to be devastating,” Territo says. A rental chain could wind up owing a turnpike large sums, facing both the financial penalties and trouble registering their cars in that state.

The problem will only get worse. Across the nation, toll authorities are increasingly moving to electronic payment systems—where cash isn’t accepted—to eliminate staffing expenses. About 75 percent of U.S. toll-road agencies now have some cashless toll systems, most of them in states with the newest turnpikes, such as Florida, North Carolina, and Texas. (Only 15 states don’t have toll roads.) “Cash is effectively being phased out,” says Neil Gray, director of government affairs for the International Bridge, Tunnel & Turnpike Association. In 15 years, he says, all U.S. toll roads will likely be electronic.

The spread of electronic toll collection, in turn, has created a new industry of businesses that pursue toll scofflaws—along with a debate about what constitutes a reasonable profit for tracking down a toll payment that is often minimal. “Part of what happened is that this sort of technology was implemented and kind of caught everyone off guard,” says Jason Hoyh, an executive at Enterprise, the parent of Alamo, Enterprise, and National. “You have travelers asking, ‘What am I supposed to do?’”

 

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