Electronic Tolls and Rental Car Companies: Outrageous Gouging?

“When does a $5 toll cost $30?” asked Dan in this article he wrote for his weblog known as Points With a Crew. “Have you ever been outrageously gouged by a rental car company for tolls?”

I personally have not, Dan; but two members of FlyerTalk were supposedly assessed fees by National Car Rental for two separate incidents in Dallas: ssullivan was assessed $45.00 for fewer than $2.75 in tolls; and $15.00 in fees were assessed to kjwalker01 because of an alleged toll violation committed in 2006.

FlyerTalk member milohoss was charged a fee of $25.80 by Hertz simply for driving a rental car across the Golden Gate Bridge — which at that time charged a toll of six dollars but has since increased to seven dollars.

After driving around Texas while conscientiously avoiding all the electronic toll gates in order to not be required to pay a $14.75 “convenience” fee, FlyerTalk member Jorgen eventually received a bill from Avis for $1.30 in actual tolls plus a $14.75 “convenience” fee.

Since when did “convenience” become so expensive?

I do not like this brave new world of electronic tolls despite the claims of easing the travel experience for motorists. I personally would rather have the inconvenience of stopping and fumbling for change — I always sorted out my coins before driving the car, so I rid myself of that inconvenience the old-fashioned way anyway — which is one of the reasons why automobile manufacturers built those little convenience coin holders in many cars: to sort your coins for tolls and other coin-operated devices such as parking meters. I suppose automobile manufacturers may one day stop equipping cars with them as they may eventually become useless.

Within the past year, I have driven on Florida’s Turnpike which — like other tollways within the state of Florida — is gradually being converted to all-electronic cashless tollways. The portion on which I drove still currently accepts cash; but those days are numbered.

Once I drive up to the toll booth, I pay my toll and ask for a receipt, which I usually receive immediately before continuing on my trip. To me, that is easy and quick; it did not cost me any extra; and I had my receipt in hand. I will concede, however, that the clueless motorist in front of the vehicle I am driving must be the same person who uses the Pre-Check lanes at airport security checkpoints: for some reason, he or she holds up the line with some superfluous business.

I understand why some highways are toll roads: among other reasons, the extra income purportedly helps to keep the toll road maintained and can bring in extra income for other highway projects. It supposedly has only the people using the road pay for it; unlike highway taxes, which everyone with a vehicle must pay regardless of highway usage. Electronic tolls reduce or eliminate the need for people to man toll booths — people who earn salaries, time off and additional costly benefits such as health insurance — and translate into more profit extricated from revenue.

Unfortunately, highway authorities, bridge and tunnel authorities, and rental car companies all seem to have created an industry out of tolls. The concept is not just about the motorist paying the toll, as in the old days. There are “convenience” fees; transponder fees; and even a fee to recharge your account with new funds — such as with the Peach Pass in Georgia.

Meanwhile, tolls keep increasing in areas such as the crossings of the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. On September 14, 2011, I wrote an article that you should expect to pay $12.00 for the privilege of using one of the crossings if you pay with cash; and that tolls will increase every year until December 6, 2015, when the cash toll will increase to $15.00. Currently, the cash toll is $13.00 — or $6.50 each way.

Are drivers become more complacent about tolls in general simply because they are electronic and therefore do not have to think about them due to their supposed greater ease and convenience?

In my opinion, complacency amongst drivers contributes to greater profits for toll roads. Back in the early 1990s, there was a campaign in New Jersey to abolish highway tolls altogether. The New Jersey Turnpike was originally supposed to abolish tolls when the roadway was completely paid in full; but new projects — such as the expansion of additional lanes, for example — supposedly perpetuate the debt further into the future. Despite the outrage, the campaign ultimately failed. I personally have not heard of any recent campaigns to abolish highway tolls anywhere — or, at least, render them fairer to motorists.

However, paying highway tolls should not require an engineering degree to figure out. Furthermore, people who reside in states which have few or no highways with electronic toll collection and drive to locations which have them cannot use those highways at all because their vehicles lack the necessary toll transponder. This borders on discrimination, in my opinion. Why should drivers be penalized from using a toll road simply because they have cash instead of a transponder?

There needs to be more choices for motorists, in my opinion. For example — for those motorists who want to drive between Dulles International Airport and either Interstate 66 or the Beltway near the District of Columbia — the Dulles Access Road is sandwiched in the median of the Dulles Toll Road. That is a nice choice — but because exits and entrances are limited, motorists who use the road for commuting must unfortunately pay the tolls if they want to use that highway.

In the Atlanta area — as with a growing number of other metropolitan areas around the United States — variable toll lanes give the consumer a choice: if there is traffic and you are willing to pay extra to get to your destination faster, use the variable toll lane. However, the tolls increase in cost as more traffic is backed up on the highway…

…and if you are in a vehicle with two or more occupants, you can travel in the toll lane free of charge. What I do not like is that you have to purchase a transponder for that privilege.

This weekend, the final phase of a construction project on Georgia State Highway 400 is being completed where a toll booth was removed this past November. The highway was extended southward from Interstate 285 to Interstate 85 and completed in 1993; and a toll booth was constructed by the time the new section of the highway opened to help pay for it. Taking a cue from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, members of the road and tollway authority of Georgia reportedly voted on September 24, 2010 to keep the tolls on Georgia State Highway 400 through 2020 to supposedly fund 11 new projects on the highway; but despite the vote, the toll booth was removed…

…and in my opinion, that is the way it should be.

I never liked the concept of tolls. I do understand that they can help pay expenses for maintenance and repairs of bridges, tunnels and highways — but I am against them if tolls are a form of double taxation where taxes are already paid by taxpayers for those bridges, tunnels and highways. Although there is the argument that drivers from outside the jurisdiction of the bridge, tunnel or highway should pay to use them rather than the local resident who may not use them at all, I would prefer that tolls were eliminated altogether. Then again, the money has to come from somewhere to build, repair and maintain bridges, tunnels and highways.

I get the arguments that electronic tolls can be beneficial: no slowing down or stopping in order to pay; no idling engines which can pollute the environment; and possibly less expensive tolls — although they seem to keep increasing in many areas. To me, I have always felt that electronic tolls are a potentially nefarious way to render drivers to be complacent about paying tolls: you do not think about how much you are paying while driving. You may gripe and grumble when it is time to pay your bill — but that is probably it.

Nevertheless — as I said before — I would prefer to have choices. Keep one manned toll booth and one automatic cash toll machine lane which dispenses receipts while having all of the remaining lanes electronic for those people who either do not have transponders for paying tolls or who have questions about the toll they should pay. I believe that would be a compromise which keeps the options available to all. I personally would use the automatic cash toll machine lane which dispenses receipts.

If electronic tolls are indeed the future — or, ever increasingly, the present — then rental car companies should not charge exorbitant fees to its customers for the use of their transponders. Give customers more of a choice. I can say one thing for certain: whether in a rental car or my own personal vehicle, I have never paid an electronic toll — not yet, anyway — but it appears that the future will render avoiding electronic tolls all that much more difficult.

I will bet that the one thing Dan of Points With a Crew likes about highway and bridge tolls is that you typically pay by the car and not by the person, as Dan and his wife have six children…

  1. Maybe not possible in CA, but I travel to Florida a few times a year. I purchased a Sunpass transponder and whenever I hop into a rental car, the first thing I do is throw their transponder in the center console and mount my transponder. Saves time trying to go through cash tolls, and it doesn’t take long to have saved enough to pay for the $20 transponder.

    1. That is a good point, Reid. If you do travel enough, the transponder could supposedly pay for itself in the long run — but I do not use toll roads enough to get a return on my investment anytime soon — if ever…

      …but as I said, it is becoming more and more difficult to avoid paying electronic tolls in certain areas of the United States…

  2. There is a push to make all systems interoperable. I believe that it may come in 2016. Thus one could purchase an expands and be able to use it anywhere in the US. And as long as you use it with the same class of vehicle (car, motorcycle, truck, etc.) they don’t care if it’s not the exact same registered vehicle.

  3. I live in the Dallas area and it’s probably not a surprise to anyone that we’ve been experiencing explosive growth over the last few decades. To keep up, they’ve built toll roads – over 800 lane miles of them. While it’s possible to avoid these roads (many have toll free access roads on the side), it’s not very convenient. What comes as a surprise to visitors is that they are all cashless.

    There are only two ways to pay: most residents pay with an electronic tolltag. The only other way to pay is that they take a picture of your license plate and send you a bill, which is increased by 50% over the tolltag price. There’s no fine, unless you fail to pay the bill. Rental car companies are taking advantage of their customers and gouging them with fines and so-called convenience fees.

    There is another option, however. Here’s something from the toll authority website:

    Zip-Pass offers a convenient way to pay tolls when driving a rental vehicle on NTTA toll roads. A Zip-Pass account is a short-term method to pay for tolls, helping you to avoid added fines, fees and opt-in costs charged by rental car companies. It offers you the assurance that your tolls are paid on time and you won’t incur late fee from the NTTA. You can call NTTA Customer Service at 972-818-NTTA (6882) or 817-731-NTTA (6882) to open a Zip-Pass account.

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