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.)

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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.

“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.

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.”

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.

Should car rental companies profit from toll roads?

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

  1. I am somewhat on the fence as to the position of they should not be allowed to >profit< from the collection of required road tolls.. however, I DO think they have every right to be able to recoup via fees, *all* their investment and maintenance required to deal with the collection of tolls that are collected via AET systems and where such collections are not controlled by or are a part of the rental agency itself.
    I would be ok with a rental company being able to profit from the collection of AET tolls **so long as** there is at least one alternative method of toll payment a customer can use.. That way, there is a choice presented to the consumer, and then if the consumer chooses to use the rental agency collection option, then I see no problem with a fee and profit, from using that optional service as provided.
    If this were to be, then as a part of that choice, I would require that the rental agency disclose that there is another payment option for tolls available to the renter, and the choice to use the rental agencies system is not required, and does incur a fee.

    1. Right. A great example is EZPass. Let’s say I have an EZPass in NY then fly to VA and am driving on an EZPass road there. Clearly, I should be able to use my own EZPass on those roads, with no charge from the rental car company. Assuming I’m allowed to do that, they can charge whatever they want to rent an EZPass.

    1. While it does not mention any specific rental car agency I believe everyone of them charges an administrative fee for tolls…even if you pay it through an app or to the tolling authority by mail or in person after the fact.

      1. Yes all charge a fee. But this one is unacceptably excessive to me. I would not rent with them again if it happened to me.

        1. Did you check the others and see what they charge? Are they all very much less than the one you are concerned about? Are there differences I what is offered when you accept their offer for the toll package? Just curious, or if you are just complaining because you are mad at this one particular rental company.

          1. Hertz charges $3 administrative fee per rental period if you go on a toll road (at least that is all I have ever been charged). I don’t know about others because I have never used them.

            So, yes, others are very very much less than $15 per toll.

  2. I just had this happen to me in Florida 2 weeks ago. The GPS took us on a toll road. I knew we would get dinged, but I thought since we didn’t click the transponder “on” we’d get a bill for the toll and an administrative fee. Wrong. In Florida, apparently, the transponder will always take the toll. The toll itself was $.76. The fee, $16.95. I called up the 3rd party e-Toll company, and they credited the $16.95 without any issue. It never hurts to ask.

  3. The travel industry is beginning to feel like a series of shake down artists. Need to fly to your destination? Pay extra for a checked bag, pay extra for a wider seat, etc. Don’t forget the taxes you have to pay for the privilege of waiting a long time in our TSA lines. Want to stay at our “resort”? Pay extra for use of towels, pay extra for early check in, etc. And, just wait to see how much more your bill will be after our local government adds in all of its taxes. Ah, you flew to our fair city and need to rent a car? Better spend extra time photographing your rental car so you don’t get “dinged” for damage when you return. Did I forget to mention the additional charges you’ll find on your bill when you return, including local taxes? It’s all just one big money grab from start to finish!

    1. I agree. However, this began to happen hen customers began complaining loudly about having to pay higher fares, rental fees, etc., for bundled packages that included things they did not use. Now, most are unbundled and al a carte. To me, that leads to more administrative charges for having to track all the individual items, etc. Plus, the airlines and rental companies have undoubtedly taken license to keep raising their ‘fees’ and have found they can get away with it; will continue to do so until there is such a hue and cry from the traveling public that it is overwhelming and the government steps in to legislate something to fix it.
      So, who is to blame? Sometimes when you demand change it winds up turning into more of a nightmare than having it the way it was before.

      1. I really don’t think it’s fair to blame customers for wanting low prices. All customers want low prices in every industry, but you don’t see the grocery store charging you a “Checkout Fee,” or the local gasoline station charging you a “Pump Access Fee.”

    2. And they’ll keep on keepin’ on … thinking up more interesting fees to increase the bottom line. My latest fave is a parking fee at a hotel out in the boondocks in Florida. Hello???

      1. Even worse, I rented a car in Honolulu at a hotel that has an on site rental company. They keep the cars in the hotel parking garage and they wanted me to pay for parking from the time the last renter parked the car until I took it out! The rental company agent just shrugged when I asked about it and said “it was only for a few hours so just pay it” when it was actually for 3 days. I got my rental refunded after calling the main corporate office.

          1. Didn’t think of that, but yeah the garage attendant wanted cash and would not allow room charge for this one stating the rental car parking had to be collected separately. Very interesting.

    3. I’m so sick of the early check in complaints. You rent a room for a specified time period. Why wouldn’t you have to pay to use it for a longer period?

    4. A few years ago, an unnamed major multinational car rental franchise in Ireland (doesn’t really matter I suppose – they went bust and the franchise is now run by a different company) started tacking on a €2 fee to every rental as a “tire pressure charge” – €2 to have air in the tires. Needless to say it didn’t last very long.

  4. Charging $15 per toll is unacceptable. I see no issue with charging a total of $15 (plus actual tolls) for the entire rental period if the company must because it does take some effort on the part of the rental companies to handle billing the renters correctly.

    I recently rented from Hertz in Texas and ended up on a toll road I didn’t expect. I was dreading the bill for this, but it wasn’t too bad. I was charged the toll and there was only a $3 fee added.

  5. The alternative is to not be able to use the toll roads at all in a rental car. It’s obvious they are going to profit from it and they do tell people, I didn’t need to read this article to find that out. I value being able to use a toll road when on business in a rented car, it’s far cheaper than the cost of extra gas and the time wasted going the longer way.

  6. Rental car companies need to go the zipcar model and just include a transponder and automatic toll charges in the rental cost. You get billed for the actual toll a few weeks after the rental and there is no extra fees. Tollbooth-less tolling locations are becoming common enough that continuing to charge fees is ridiculous. Maybe a fee of like $1 per toll would be reasonable. Do any of the big car rental companies (Hertz, Avis, Budget, Alamo, Enterprise, National) do this already?
    I had the opposite situation happen once. I thought my rental car had a working transponder, I pulled up to an automated gate and it did not work! That was embarrassing.

  7. I can see adding a percentage fee to tolls passed through the car rental company, but $60 on fees on $4.50 in tolls is flat-out stealing. You might just try Ubering everywhere.

  8. Slightly OT, but if you ever get a chance when you’re in the area to drive Texas toll road 130, I highly recommend it. The speed limit is 85 mph – the highest legal speed limit in the US. But it is very lightly traveled. It’s such a fun drive.

  9. I had a difficult experience with this just last week. I was flying into Denver and wanted to use I-470, which has a toll, between there and Boulder. I was renting from National, which charges a $3.95 service fee for each day that you bill tolls to them. That’s not outrageous and is less than some companies, but I saw that expresstoll.com lets you set up an account and designate car as a rental, which presumably means they don’t hold you responsible for charges outside your rental period. I wasn’t sure if this would work, since I didn’t know if my car would have a transponder or just be recognized by its license plate, but I decided to try. Unfortunately, when I got the car and tried to enter the plate on the expresstoll website, I got an error message saying I couldn’t add a rental car and needed to call them. I don’t know if this was because my account was new, the car was already registered through National, I did something wrong, or something else. I didn’t want to waste time calling or asking National. I could have just paid the $3.95/day, but I decided to be stubborn and take a slightly longer route that avoids the toll. Argghhh.

  10. Every business should make a profit, but the amount they are charging is not reasonable. I remember Hertz charging a daily fee for the rental so if you used a toll road on the last day, you would pay for every day. Absurd.

  11. Chris, why don’t you name the rental companies in this article? It’s great that you are highlighting these fees as something to look out for before you book a car but why not let readers know which companies are charging the outrageous fees? It’s fair that they should be able to “cover costs”, maybe even profit a little depending on your point of view – but they don’t all charge the same ridiculous amounts. The charge from National mentioned by Bruce Burger in a comment below seems much more reasonable than the charges highlighted in your article. I worked in Dubai for almost a year and had rentals from Hertz while I was there. You literally can’t drive in Dubai without passing under toll bridges – which are awesome, I don’t know why the US hasn’t implemented them everywhere – you just fly beneath them at 80 miles an hour, beep, all set. The toll charge is AED4 (just over $1) per beep. Either once a month for long rentals or within 3 days of the end of your rental period, you are automatically charged AED5 per beep by Hertz to the credit card on file and sent a receipt via email that lists each individual toll charge – the date, time and location. A 25% surcharge for Hertz seems reasonable to me and you only pay for the tolls you actually drive through, no per day charge and completely automated at least from the consumers perspective.

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