Look out! Automated plazas take a toll on car rental customers

When Amos Peters picked up a rental car in Austin a few weeks ago, the only thing that stood between him and his destination was State Highway 130, a toll road. It was missing an important feature: a toll booth.

Instead, it had an automated toll plaza — which seemed to give Peters two equally unacceptable, options. He could use back roads, which would lengthen his drive, or he could pass through the automated plaza and incur a daily “toll fee” from his car-rental company whether he used the highway again or not. (Charging customers by the day after they’ve used an automated toll road is a standard industry practice.)

But Peters, who works for a marketing and Web design firm in Austin, was aware of a third option: a new smartphone app called PToll that allows users to register their rental’s license plates and make their own payment arrangements.

PToll is one of several new devices drivers are using on automated toll roads. Of the 5,300 miles of toll roads in the United States, about 200 miles are considered all-electronic tolling (AET), or automated, according to the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. In other words, there are no toll booths, so you have to register your license plate with the tolling authority to pay for using the road, or you’ll receive a fine in the mail. AET roads are expanding at a rate of about 100 miles per year, which makes this a growing concern.

Things get a little confusing if you’re renting a car, as Peters was. Car-rental agencies strike deals with a toll authority or a third party, such as the Highway Toll Administration (HTA), to process toll payments. The rental companies then add a fee to the toll to cover their expenses. So Peters’s car-rental company billed him $50 for tolls and fees, even though he’d registered the rental car’s plates with PToll and had already paid his tolls.

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“It was an outrageous charge,” says Peters, who disputed it with the rental company.

Brad Oshman, an IT analyst from San Ramon, Calif., used another strategy to avoid paying higher fees. Oshman sometimes rents a car and drives to San Francisco International Airport to catch a flight. Along the way there, he crosses the San Mateo Bridge. To save time on his last trip, Oshman decided to skip the toll booth and zip through the automated toll lane, using his own FasTrak transponder, which he took from his personal vehicle.

“We didn’t hear the familiar ‘beep’ as we went through the toll gates,” he says.

When he landed in Hawaii, he clicked on the FasTrak site to see how to handle the payment. The site advised him to wait for the violation notice in the mail, but that would be sent directly to his rental-car company. He had a better idea. He registered the rental plates to his FasTrak account, hoping to avoid his car-rental company’s system, which would have added fees and penalties.

“A few days later, I saw the toll charged to my account, and I then removed the rental car’s license plates from my account,” he says. “My plan worked perfectly.” Well, for him, at least. I’ve rented a car and tried the same thing. Sometimes the transponder is recognized, sometimes not. I have the bills to prove it.

In the meantime, PToll is still a work in progress. It began testing in Austin last summer with ambitious plans to expand. “Our ultimate goal is national deployment,” says Glenn Deitiker, president of PToll’s parent company, BancPass.

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One roadblock, Deitiker says, is HTA, which works directly with car-rental companies to provide transponders and toll-processing services. BancPass is suing HTA in federal court, accusing the firm of antitrust violations and of interfering with BancPass’s business by persuading Google and Apple to drop its app and discouraging toll authorities from participating in PToll.

David Centner, HTA’s chief executive, said his company hasn’t interfered with PToll’s business or committed antitrust violations. The suit isn’t likely to be resolved until later this year at the earliest.

A long-term solution may be in the works. Last year, regulators proposed a rule that would require new passenger cars and light trucks to have vehicle-to-vehicle communication capability. Observers predict that could lead to standardized toll transponders, eventually eliminating the need for a third party to provide billing services or act as an intermediary between you and your car-rental agency. But that, as they say, is a long way down the road.

In the meantime, you have to read the fine print on your rental agreement. Robert Sher wishes he had when he rented a car in Florida during the Thanksgiving holidays. He used toll roads only four times, assuming each time that he could settle up later with his car-rental company.

“In addition to the $4.50 in tolls, which I’m happy to pay, they are charging me a $15 administrative fee for each toll, or a total of $60,” he says. “Apparently, there is language in the rental contract — which I didn’t notice at the time — that authorizes this and gives the renter the option of renting a SunPass transponder.”

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Alas, the transponder rental would have cost more than $60, so either way, Sher would have lost. The incident is particularly galling because Sher, who lives in Chevy Chase, Md., is something of a specialist when it comes to fine print. He’s a lawyer.

Like Peters, the manager from Austin who was dinged $50 by his car-rental agency, Sher is fighting the charges. There’s a little good news on that front: Often, car-rental companies and their agents roll over when they’re asked to substantiate these high bills, so they’re almost always worth disputing. But new technology, and maybe a tip or two learned from clever drivers, could make these struggles a thing of the past.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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