Is there a car rental toll conspiracy?

Maybe I got it wrong when I concluded that car rental companies are just trying to help customers by offering “optional” toll payment services with their cars.

Maybe it’s a widespread conspiracy that involves not only the auto rental companies and third parties that handle electronic billing, but also local toll road authorities -— all of which would profit from a tourist driving down a poorly-marked turnpike.

At least that’s what Shira Newman, a property manager from Portland, Ore., suggested after I mentioned my own toll road trouble, which had cost me $27.10 in charges for a short drive to the airport.

“I had a similar thing happen to me about a year ago when I took my family to Denver,” she told me. “Apparently, they have toll roads there but do not disclose them — there is basically one way to go out of the Denver airport, but no one really says anything about it.”

Newman is referring to E-470, which is a convenient way to get from Denver International Airport to the suburbs, but not the only way. And hers isn’t the first complaint I’ve received about its lack of disclosure. (Remember Dave Medin, the reader from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in my last report — he was caught by E-470, too.)

“So we paid the toll out of the airport and back to the airport — we were there for six days, but used it twice, to and from the airport,” says Newman. “But I, like you, was apparently charged their toll charge for each day that I rented the car.”

“It is a scam, I believe,” she adds.

Yes, but is it a conspiracy? You would have to prove that the practice went far beyond one or two locations adding pricey transponders with little or no disclosure. You’d need pictures of car rental officials meeting with toll road bigwigs in a Chinese restaurant on the wrong side of the tracks (deals like that are always done in a Chinese restaurant, for some reason).

And you’d need to show me the checks or transaction records proving the car rental managers paid officials to remove the E-470s roadsigns.

As much as I love investigative journalism, I don’t think I’m going to find that smoking gun. (Besides, I’m a consumer advocate. Investigative reporters get bigger paychecks and they have big employers that protect them from litigious readers.)

But still, it’s worth noting that many others feel the same way Newman does. I think they’re onto something.

Why? First, there’s absolutely no denying that these transponder or plate-registration services are a big, highly profitable business. Car rental companies don’t have to charge you for every day you “use” these services. They could bill you for the tolls and add a modest surcharge to cover their expenses.

Instead, they start the meter when you blow through the first toll booth, and they keep it running for the rest of your rental. Some might say that’s unethical.

Second, having spent the better part of the last year driving around the country, I can confirm that some toll roads are not clearly marked, and that the poor signage only helps the people who operate the roads.

And finally, I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with this if it was confined to Denver, but toll roads are popping up everywhere. In some cases, the toll roads were once free, which is to say they were funded by your tax dollars. I find that highly annoying. (Don’t look now, but there’s a good chance there’s a toll road or two coming soon to your neighborhood.)

Put it all together, and you have what may be the single biggest ancillary revenue opportunity for the car rental industry in a generation.

Oh, and did I mention there’s no way to appeal these charges? Not for me, and not for Newman.

“About a month after getting back home, there was this charge on my card, and I tried to dispute it,” she said. “But American Express wouldn’t let me.”

I’m not a big-government kind of guy, but if this doesn’t make you wish for some kind of federal oversight, I don’t know what will. Question is: Who needs to be reined in — the toll authorities, third-party companies providing these lucrative services, or the car rental companies?

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • emanon256

    Conspiracy, I think not. Money grab, for sure!

    Every time I rent a car the form they give me states under a bold heading of “tolls” that if I use the toll transponder, I will get charged $2.95 per day ($2.50 until recently). It always sounds like a rip off, and in the few times I need to use a toll road, I go through the cash booth and pay cash. They try to spin it as if the $2.95 is a convince fee, I just roll my eyes and am thankful I don’t have to pay it.

    As for Denver, I am not sure what the OP is talking about. I drive too and from the airport every week, and have only taken a toll road twice since it opened. There is one main road to and from the airport, Pena Boulevard, it is not a toll road. It connects to any number of highways, there are two toll roads which you actually have to exit to get to, and there are many signs long before you get to the exits indicating they are toll roads, and even if you take it, you can pull off the road and pay cash at a booth. I paid cash once, and another time I tried the license plate toll, the toll authority themselves charged me a “convenience fee” and a “Service fee” on top of the toll, very annoying. What’s also annoying is that the toll road is owned by a company in another country, so I am not even helping our country.

    I suspect this car rental toll charge falls under the category of Idiot tax. Read the document you sign, and read the road signs. I have never been forced to use the toll transponder or license plate toll. Toll booths are hard to miss, and every license plate toll bypass where you can pay with cash is also very easy to spot.

  • Richard

    “What’s also annoying is that the toll road is owned my a company in another country, so I am not even helping our country.”

    I know it’s a Spanish company. They also have toll roads around Chicago. I’ve invested in them, it’s been a good investment. I suggest that you do the same. If the US is stupid enough to sell off their infrastucture because they don’t want to budget maintenance fees, no use in both of us being stupid.

    Richard from Europe

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    As far as I know, it doesn’t really cost very much to own a transponder. So the rental companies are definitely doing a cash grab, “renting” them out to people. Just say “no” and put up with the cash toll booths if at all possible. A bigger pain but at least no hidden charges…

  • Jennifer M.

    I have a question: is the rental company getting the transponder fees? I thought it was the company that the rental companies got the transponders from who pocketed the bulk of the daily fee (maybe I misread the last time this came up in this column?). Not that it makes too much of a difference I guess – I’m sure the rental companies get a bit of the money or could have negotiated a better package resulting in a better deal for their customers. . .

  • BrianKal

    If you look at google steet view coming from the Denver Airport access highway approaching 470, the road is clearly marked as ‘Tollway’ on the ramp. Not sure how they could make it more obvious. She should try reading a road sign.

  • emanon256

    Actually it looks like e470 is state controlled, though I thought I heard otherwise. But the other one, the “North West Parkway” was built by and is operated and maintained by a company in Lisbon called Brisa Auto-Estradas. It looks like their stock is in the toilet right now. Maybe it would be a good time to buy.

  • john4868

    Count me in the “lazy” bunch that will pay for the transponder on short trips… If I’m going into Chicago or Orlando for a short trip where there are a ton of toll roads its worth $3 a day not to have to sit in line to pay the toll. It’s like buying the tank of gas in the car when I pick it up just so I don’t have to worry about filling it up at the end. Does the rental car company come out ahead … Yep.. Do I save my time which is more important to me … Yep.

  • emanon256

    Actually back when I was able to bill tolls, I used the transponder a few times in Florida, and pre-paid for gas. But I had a 90 mile drive from MCO to my client. Now that the expenses come out of my pocket I am much more frugal. There were many time when I was driving from Chicago to Madison where I did think about using it, but never did. What got me was that I often had the car for 2 week, and only traveled the toll roads at the very beginning and end, I hated the idea of having to pay the fee for every day in between. If it were a short rental, I probably would have done it.

  • TonyA_says
  • Christopher Elliott

    It depends. It’s usually a split between the company offering the transponders or plate pass services and the car rental company.

  • Chris_In_NC

    Its a rip off but not a conspiracy. As a frequent traveler to Denver and having rented vehicles from multiple car agencies (Dollar, Budget, Hertz, and Alamo), I can personally vouch that the rental car companies provide adequate disclosure. Not only are signs located on the shuttle bus, the agent will “warn” you about toll roads and the charges. Finally, as you leave Denver airport, the signs for E-470 say “TOLL ROAD.” I understand that travel is stressful and in a new and unfamiliar environment, some travelers may miss things, but an inadvertent drive on E-470 is clearly user error.

    Its also interesting to note the charge to “rent” a transponder vary widely between the rental car agencies. What I don’t think is fair is the fact that if you drive on the toll road even only once, you are billed a fairly steep fee throughout the ENTIRE rental. So if you have the car for 7 days, and drive on E-470 once, you are assessed something on the order of $28 (7 X $3.95) to $56 (7 X $7.95) for the rental in addition to the toll.

    That is the rip off!

  • Peter Zapalo

    When I first had an extended visit to the Denver area (and was thus unacquainted with getting around), I rented a car from Thrifty at DEN. In addition to the typical car rental upsell, the agent gave me a whole speil about the automatic toll road and said in a loud voice several times that if I did not rent the toll transponder that it would cost “over ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS” to drive to and from the airport (his emphasis not mine).

    I was able to find a non-toll route, namely I-225, in about two minutes using my phone, and turned down the toll box. What is sad is that I don’t think he was out and out lying about the amount- I wouldn’t be shocked if Thrifty added an “administration fee” for each unpaid toll, and there are about 3-4 radio towers you drive under on E-470 between the airport and I-25. The toll itself is $7.45 if you have a box.

    But, do I think he was lying to upsell? You betcha.

  • Chris_In_NC

    On the east coast, there are 2 major toll systems: E-Z Pass (VA and points northeast), and Sunpass (Florida). If anyone travels enough in these regions, consider buying a transponder and registering your vehicle. I have used Sunpass on a rental vehicle without any problems, but make sure that you don’t get a rental vehicle with a transponder (double billing) and make sure you register the rental car license plate with Sunpass!

    Owning a Sunpass transponder has made life so much easier when in Florida!

  • jpp42

    This might be considered off-topic, but foreign ownership of toll roads should not be construed as “not helping your country.” The private investment in these roads usually means faster access to more capital which means they can be built more quickly – and that capital mostly was paid out during construction which is a decidedly local benefit. A more traditional funding model might be the issuing of municipal bonds to raise capital for road-building. Those bonds are very often bought by foreign investors too, which means your local taxes still go to foreigners when paying the interest on the bonds! The only difference is that in this case it’s the whole road that’s owned by one entity (which is likely part domestically and part foreign owned itself), instead of split up among many thousands of bond-holders.

  • Harry Baxter

    Unfortunately, they’re removing the cash toll booths, so the only way around the situation is to own your own transponder, along with your GPS, Radar Detector, IPad, IPhone, Laptop, etc. When something becomes a win/win/win for the car rental companies, the turnpike authority, the DMV, and the only loser is the poor consumer, there’s a conspiracy.

  • Daddydo

    1) If you are a frequent traveler ( lets make it 10 cities outside of 200 miles from home per year), you should have a GPS and they all can be set to avoid toll roads. $60.00 – $200.00 for a unit and that is less than a week of tolls.
    2) If you know that you are going into toll road country on a regular basis, than the Fast Pass is an excellent investment to carry with you. How do you know where they are? Research! Google is this new tool that tells you things.
    3) Chris, you are a bit off on the Chinese restaurant. I have always made my deals with red wine and pasta.

  • emanon256

    Thats really interesting. Thanks! Tough issue, I will avoid getting political on here.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    “I had a similar thing happen to me about a year ago when I took my family to Denver,” she told me. “Apparently, they have toll roads there but do not disclose them — there is basically one way to go out of the Denver airport, but no one really says anything about it.”

    Nobody says anything about it because it simply isn’t true. I-225 is not a toll road and that is your non-toll way to and away from DIA. E470 is clearly marked as a toll road everywhere. I’m no fan of toll roads (and got dinged a while back for somehow missing a toll both on E470) but to say it’s in any way unclear it is a toll road is absurd.

  • Steve Ruge

    This is not the case in Denver. You can “pay by plate” and your plate is scanned and billed. Yes a 20% markup is involved but transponders are not necessary here.

  • Steve Ruge

    You can no longer pay cash on Denver toll roads – just as a clarification – but the road is well marked and Pena terminates at I-70, a freeway.

  • S363

    You can NOT pull off of E-470 (near DEN) and pay cash. This is the case as of a few years ago. If you don’t have a transponder they will read the plate and send a bill to the registered owner, again the car company. The toll road is prominently marked, with TOLL ROAD in yellow on the green signs, and you do NOT have to take it to get to Denver from the airport.

  • bodega3

    The Golden Gate Bridge is going to this shortly, too.

  • emanon256

    The exit road from the DEN airport becomes Pena which dumps into I-70 (Unless you exit somewhere), which can take you to Denver and the western suburbs. The I-225 exit is almost immediately after you get onto I-70 and it goes to the tech center and southern suburbs (similar to E470 but closer to the city). A few miles after you get to I-70 is the I-270 exit which takes you to the norther suburbs and continues west as 36 into Boulder (Similar to the North West Toll Road). All three roads bring you to I-25 which goes north and south. All of the roads are free and directly accessible by exiting the airport.

  • emanon256

    Now that really stinks, I rarely take them, but the last time I was on E470 there was a toll both, but I had to exit to get to it, and then get back on. If they get rid of those and force someone to use the car rental markup every day, that is pretty bad. At least in Denver its easy to avoid the toll roads.

  • y_p_w

    It might be worth it.

    I think the (sticker based) SunPass Mini is only $4.99. You could set up an account online and buy a new one each time. Either that or maybe even get the $25 regular pass and just add/remove the rental car’s license plate # each time. That might make sense for someone who travels to Florida a lot.

  • streamerstoo

    Without realizing it, we were in the Sunpass area a couple years ago. There were no or anyway hardly visible signs stating we would be charged. There ware minimal toll booths and when we returned home we got a nice bill from them too. We disputed it w the state, argued about the lack of signage and won, yes, won. They sent us a transponder w $ loaded in it. Since we were not heading south for a while I went it to another in Fl. that could use it. At least we won!

  • john4868

    I looked at it. The mini has to be permanently affixed to the windshield. I can only imagine the fee the rental car company would charge to remove it (see all of Chris’s rental car damage stories). I thought about the $25 version but I’m not down there enough to payoff fast enough. If I was down more than a few days a year, I’d definately do it but its just easier to pay the rental car company to handle it.

  • sunshipballoons

    In Denver, I’ve only rented from Hertz, but I had a similar experience. They have several HUGE signs in their rental office and they tell you about the tolls when you actually get the car. I guess if you’re #1 gold and do the “name in lights” thing, you might not get as good of a disclosure.

  • y_p_w

    Nothing is really all that permanent. I think they recommend using a razor blade and alcohol to clean up the adhesive when removed.

    I’ve also heard that they might work if simply taped to the windshield, although the antenna is designed to be securely adhered to the glass.

    When I visited Florida, I just paid in cash. The cheapest toll I remember was just a quarter at some onramp. They actually had a human toll taker.

  • cjr001

    As a Colorado resident, as I said in the last story about this, E-470 *IS* clearly marked as you go to/from DIA.

    Once I rented a car and, after picking up a friend at the airport, we were going to Boulder. I took E-470 over to see how long it took, and what the charges would end up being from Enterprise. The charges were what I expected – a few bucks.

    As for the drive itself? Well, the toll road was practically empty, but it maybe saved me 10 minutes if I had just continued on to I-70 and then gotten onto Hwy 36. So, I’m not sure the time saved was worth what I paid for it.

    The real problem is the Denver Metro is an unmitigated disaster of urban sprawl.

  • dsliesse

    Re your second point, great idea but…

    There are at least four different transponder systems in this country, and they don’t all talk to each other. Here in the real Washington (the State of), the Good-to-Go pass system is 100% incompatible with any other system, so the I-Pass that I brought along when I moved from Illinois is worthless. I-Pass and EZ-Pass are usually, but not always, compatible; I don’t know about Florida’s system.

  • JimDavisHouston

    They are definately a rip off. Pay your tolls in cash. EZ Toll tags are usually velcro’d on the windscreen. I pull them off, and place them in the glove box. BUT BEWARE! Some cars have built in toll tags. A notice is usually on the windscreen, in the upper corner. I refuse those cars, and ask for another WITHOUT the auto system.

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    “They could bill you for the tolls and add a modest surcharge to cover their expenses. ” but this is totally impractical & would involve having to employ a whole department. Car companies have to collect the toll/tax, otherwsie they’d never get paid. If the entity who charged the toll collected it, it would cost far more. If you don’t like toll roads get off them & stop whingeing!!!
    Toll rds only work, if there’s an efficient & I emphasise EFFICIENT way of collecting tolls.
    Otherwise there wouldn’t be any toll roads, unless govt taxes were drastically increased. Don’t think there’s a govt in whole of USA that’s not totally broke/bankrupt.

  • bodega3

    When renting with a certain rental car company that I have expedited service with, I have not been charged when I have used toll road. Not sure why, but I am not complaining and I have used them in several states.
    I did get charged a year ago, but I was renting with the same company at a TA rate. Except for the Golden Gate Bridge, I don’t live where an EZ box on my windshield is necessary to have, so not having to deal with any paperwork, bringing it with me to place on a rental car, I don’t care what the rental car company billed me, I was happy to pay it. Let them deal with it. I will probably have to get a box for my car shortly when the GG Bridge goes moneyless…which is absolutely WRONG! There should be at least one toll booth that accepts money on every toll road.

  • TonyA_says

    Emanon, shouldn’t the E in E470 be a dead giveaway? I have never seen the E used here in the East. I know they use E highway coding in Europe. Most of the time we use I, US, or the State initials. Colorado also uses SH for state highway.

  • emanon256

    That too. E-470 is the toll, confusingly enough we also have C-470 which is a Colorado state highway. E-470 was a toll extension where C-470 ended.

  • Alia Naffouj

    I rented from Hertz in Houston recently and didn’t know about the toll roads and ended up on one when leaving the airport. No big deal, I paid all the tolls. Well weeks later I see a charge on my credit card for the tolls. I had no idea there was anything in the vehicle that paid the tolls. No one said anything to me about it when I rented the vehicle and there was nothing posted inside the vehicle saying this vehicle has whatever to pay tolls. I was fortunate as one of the toll attendants happened to hand me a receipt and I kept it. I tried to contact Hertz about the charge letting them know I had at least one receipt to prove I paid cash, I never hear from them so I disputed it with my credit card company and they sided with me. The amount was not large but it was the principal of not evening knowing I was paying twice. I am so glad I had that one receipt. It was funny while there I read an article Elliot wrote about Houston and Hertz and toll issues so I checked the vehicle and still could no find anything that indicated there as something that paid the tolls. I made sure to hold on to my receipt though and was glad I did. Horrible customer service on Hertz’s end as they never responded to my issue and it has been almost a month since i contacted them.

  • MarkKelling

    E-470 is one of the best marked toll roads I have ever seen. Every sign on every entrance clearly states TOLL ROAD. The only way to miss that is to not be paying attention. Maybe if the drivers weren’t trying to text or talk on their cell phones while driving they wouldn’t have a problem with missing the signs.

    Also, there are multiple routes in and out of the Denver Airport that don’t involve taking the toll road as others have detailed.

    I take the toll road to the airport when I am leaving Denver on Friday evening because there is no easier or faster way to get from where I am to where I need to be. When I return, I take I-225 because it is usually late on Sunday and there is no major traffic to deal with. The cost is worth it leaving Denver on Friday because the other highways are bumper to bumper.

  • MarkKelling

    Can’t speak for every toll system in the country, but in Colorado the transponders are free and only available from the toll road authority. Each transponder is linked to a single license plate number (which can be easily changed by the transponder user when a different car is using the transponder, but only one plate can be registered at any one time). They also will bill you based on your license plate registration info if you don’t have a transponder.

    The fees that the rental companies charge, over and above what the tolls are, are split with the company they hire to manage the payment of the tolls.

    Why this is so difficult or expensive to handle or even why it requires an external company to manage puzzles me. The rental companies use computers for billing. So do the toll agencies. I see no reason why, when the bill is delivered electronically for any one transponder or license plate, it can’t be practically instantaneously determinable who had the car when a specific toll was charged and that customer should be automatically billed the applicable amount. There really is no need for a manual process other than as an excuse to attempt to justify the high fees.

  • BMG4ME

    I think it’s worth paying for it, although I thought you were charged per day of usage, not day of rental. I always try to remember to take my own EZPass with me, and as EZPass becomes a National system which it will eventually, that will be the way to go.

  • jmtabb

    If the rental car company has placed a permanent sticker tag, then unless there is a way to block the tag, you are stuck paying the rental car company’s rate to use the toll road. If you try to register the car to “pay by plate” you’ll get dinged twice.

    And if they have not placed a permanent sticker tag on the vehicle, you have to register the car and plate to your account before you drive on the toll road according to the I-470 website. Since you need the license plate number to register, that means fiddling with this at the rental agency before you drive off. Not very user friendly…..

  • Sonya

    Similarly, I went into Dallas and the rental car company offered me a transponder. I declined thinking I could make my way without using toll roads. Boy was I wrong and it was me to refused it. In the end, I never got a bill for zooming through toll roads without a transponder. Maybe my company has a big account with the rental car company and they didn’t bother.

  • carrentalsavers

    Not all rental agencies charge the same for tolls. For example Enterprise brands (Alamo/National/Enterprise) only charge you on days that you use toll roads. This can make a big difference on longer rentals when the only tolls you pay are to and from the airport.