It recently cost me $27.10 in tolls and fees to make the round trip between the Orlando airport and my home in Winter Springs, Fla., in a rental car.
If that sounds like a lot of money for a half-hour drive, it should.
There are no expensive bridges or tunnels between the airport and my house, just suburban sprawl connected by a flat toll road. And technically, I paid only $3.50 to Floridas turnpike authorities; the rest went to a company called PlatePass.
PlatePass is one of several businesses that offer electronic toll payments through an onboard transponder or a system that photographs license plates. These little-known businesses are at the center of a growing number of complaints from car rental customers, and a look at my bill offers a few clues as to why.
PlatePass, which works with car rental companies such as Advantage and Hertz, charges customers an administrative fee of $2.95 per day, with a maximum of $14.75 per month, starting as soon as you incur your first toll and continuing whether or not you pass through another tollbooth during the course of your rental. Because I rented a car for more than 30 days and I went through a tollbooth on the first day, driving to the airport, I was charged for a full month plus several days of PlatePass as well as tolls.
Something similar happened to Dave Medin, an electrical engineer from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when he rented a car for a 12-day vacation in Houston. He paid cash for tolls, not realizing that the license plates also were registering a charge.
We were billed the minuscule toll, plus a $10 administrative fee, he says. I was asked to produce toll road receipts to show that Id paid by cash, but to be honest, who asks for toll receipts on a family vacation, expecting to defend oneself against a bogus electronic charge?
Medin protested the charge, copying me on his email. I objected to my bill, as well, because I already own a Florida SunPass transponder and thought that I had arranged to pay my tolls with it. PlatePass appeared to be double-billing me.
PlatePass says it offers a valuable service to car rental companies and their customers. Before the system came online six years ago, it points out, car rental companies had to reconcile toll violations themselves, a tedious and expensive process. Car rental customers who blew through a tollbooth could face fines plus punitive surcharges from their rental company.
PlatePass is a win-win-win, says PlatePass spokesman Charles Territo. Its a win for a consumer who now has the option of using toll lanes without having to enroll in a program prior to renting a vehicle. Its a win for rental car companies because it alleviates the effort involved in processing toll violations and invoices. And its a win for the toll authorities, because they receive timely payment of all tolls from Hertz and Advantage vehicles.
But some are winning more than others. I spoke with current and former car rental employees about electronic toll payments, and I learned a few things. First, billing fees are set by the agencies not the toll-payment companies, which collect the money, pay the toll authorities and give the rental agencies a cut. If it wanted to, a car rental agency could charge only for the tolls, with a modest surcharge for handling the transaction; instead, the industry standard is to start the meter at the first use of a tollbooth, setting off a daily charge for the administrative fee.
It wasnt always this way. Hertz, for example, originally authorized PlatePass to bill its rental car customers for only the days they used the service to pay tolls. In February 2009, Hertz changed that policy, levying the administrative fee for every day of the remainder of the rental period. Customers complained that they werent clearly informed that they would be charged the fee even for days when the PlatePass was not being used; after an investigation by the Florida Attorney Generals Office, the car rental company agreed to improve its disclosure and offer refunds to some drivers.
Some say the agreement gave other car rental companies a green light to start the meters on their toll-payment services and to keep them running. Paula Rivera, a Hertz representative disputes that, pointing out that other rental agencies had similar price structures in place before Hertz did.
We believe Hertzs pricing to be the most consumer-friendly in the industry, Rivera said.
Another important, but unsurprising, fact: Electronic tolling services are immensely profitable, according to several people with knowledge of these systems. I asked the largest provider of car rental tolling services, Highway Toll Administration, about the success of its transponder-based product, which is used by several large car rental companies, including Alamo, Avis and Enterprise.
David Centner, the companys president and chief executive, said his company doesnt publicly release its earnings because it is privately held, and although he didnt deny that business is brisk, he was quick to add that consumers are benefiting from the technology, too.
Everyones winning, Centner said. Weve had tens of millions of satisfied customers. Our service is extremely desirable, and the price is right.
But he acknowledges that electronic toll payment systems such as his arent without their critics.
With any service thats offered, there are going to be people who think they didnt get the value for it, he said.
Centner and other car rental insiders say the anger is misdirected. Neither the car rental companies nor the electronic toll services control the burgeoning number of toll roads in the United States. Also, they have no influence over the new tollboothless open road tolling that authorities are adopting, which tends to run up charges for drivers who dont realize that theyre on a toll road. And they say things could be worse: Instead of paying $10 or $20 in extra fees, drivers without a transponder or preregistered plates who incur unpaid tolls could face fines of hundreds of dollars if those systems werent in place.
Customers such as Medin, in fact, are upset by the prevalence of toll roads. At the top of his list is E-470, a 47-mile toll road east of Denver that tourists often use by accident, either because their onboard navigation system guides them there or because they arent aware that its a toll road.
Drivers also are bothered by older highways that have been turned into toll roads, ensnaring travelers who assume that theyre still free.
Rental car companies and their affiliates shouldnt be treating toll roads as another revenue source, period, says Medin. They should charge only for tolls plus the actual administrative costs.
I agree. At the very least, they should bill only for tolls that we incur. Medins charges were reversed almost immediately. Mine? A review of my SunPass records shows that it didnt charge me for the four tolls, even though I had registered my rentals plates. So Im probably stuck with my PlatePass bill.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Email him at email@example.com, or troubleshoot your trip through his website, www.elliott.org. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.