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.