Cashless toll roads, another hazard for car renters

Think of it as an invisible road hazard.

Three months after Joan Cox rented a Ford Fusion rental car in Orlando last summer, a surprise bill from Thrifty Car Rental landed in her mailbox. The company wanted 50 cents for a toll violation on the Beachline Expressway, a toll road that connects Orlando with the East Coast beaches and the Kennedy Space Center.

Oh, and one other thing: there was a $25 “administrative fee” for processing.

Cox, an information systems specialist from Wilmington, Del., didn’t recall blowing through any tollbooths during her Florida vacation. So she did a little sleuthing.

“It appears this has happened to many visitors over the last several years and is really quite an issue — almost a scam,” she says. “This also appears to be a setup to out-of-state travelers and a moneymaker for rental car companies.”

Motorists have made such accusations ever since there have been toll roads. Sometimes the charges stick. Back in 2008, MSNBC.com consumer advocate Bob Sullivan reported that a company called Violation Management Services, which processes toll violations for car rental companies, promised its customers online that it could turn “a costly customer service headache into a profitable customer service solution.” The company cleaned up its act after that report, removing the incriminating language from its Web site.

Such complaints are becoming more common as all-electronic toll roads get powered up nationwide. In 2010, the North Texas Tollway stopped accepting cash, making it the largest toll road to go cashless. Earlier this year, Florida’s Turnpike moved to an all-electronic system in Miami-Dade County. Anyone driving from Miami International Airport to the Florida Keys would be likely to face an invisible toll. Several other roads in Florida are scheduled to go cashless soon, including Miami’sAirport Expressway and Dolphin Expressway.

Here’s how it works: If you have a transponder, your account gets charged after you pass through the tollbooth. But if you don’t, the system takes a snapshot of your plate and subsequently mails you — or, if you’re in a rental car, the rental agency — a bill. On Florida’s Turnpike, for example, that bill comes with an extra $2.50 administrative fee — not $25.

“This can be such a tough situation to explain to a customer,” says Kathleen Hernandez, a spokeswoman for Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group. The company receives “thousands” of toll, parking and traffic violations each month from all the municipalities across the country. It then has to match the renter to the violation, which can be time-consuming. Thrifty charges $25 for a 50-cent violation because it’s a lot of work to figure out that Cox was responsible for the fine.

Thrifty goes out of its way to disclose the toll roads, according to the company. It hands out brochures warning of the tolls and pointing out which roads they apply to. It also offers, for a fee, an automated service called Rent a Toll that notes the license plate of the rental car and passes the toll charges along to the customer at the end of the rental. Some locations even permit renters to activate the service retroactively when they return a car if they suspect that they’ve failed to pay a toll.

“Ms. Cox’s frustration is understandable — and we do take some flak for the process, but we have honestly worked to provide options for the customer,” says Hernandez.

As to the assertion that this is a rental car scam, the car rental industry insists that it’s not. “This is not a profit center for the car rental companies,” says Bob Barton, president of the American Car Rental Association. “But unfortunately, we have been forced into a situation to provide such a system to facilitate the toll collections for the state.”

That’s definitely something to be aware of the next time you rent a car. You could find yourself driving down a toll road where your money’s no good, or worse, get hit with a toll months after your vacation. Even with the new toll roads, rental companies, citing the high cost of equipping their entire fleet, have made electronic transponders optional.

Incidentally, Cox doesn’t buy Thrifty’s explanation. She says that no one handed her a brochure when she rented her car, and no one offered to let her pay for any tolls retroactively. Even if they had, she would have turned them down, because she says she didn’t even know that she was driving on a toll road.

I’m inclined to believe the car rental industry when it says that it’s doing everything it can to disclose the road hazards and that it has no choice but to comply with the toll collection system. But that’s not the problem. Car rental companies could make every vehicle electronic-toll ready if they wanted to. Would it cost the companies more? Sure. Would it reduce the number of complaints? Absolutely.

Letting a car with no working transponder off the lot in 2011 is like renting someone a car without seat belts or windshield wipers. It’s irresponsible.

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