Toll Roads: Highways to Hell

Here’s a Tampa Bay Times article that gets at the rage those of us who rent cars have at toll roads.

This is what I wrote on my personal Facebook page: “Toll-Roads-In-A-Rental-Car is the worst government-sponsored scam in existence. And the lawmakers in this article don’t get it – it’s not just the rental car companies that are to blame; it’s the states that operate toll roads as well. And just wait til these folks make the mistake of renting a car in Illinois, where there is a 73-cents-exact-change-only-no-pennies-accepted toll booth every four blocks. I could have bought my rental car for the amount of tolls, fees and fines I’ve paid driving through the Land of Lincoln.”

In short, plenty of rage to go around here. Look, I understand toll roads are a necessity in some places. Maybe not as necessary as governments in the Northeast might think they are, but they serve a place. No one likes paying to drive on a road, so we’re all going to be upset when we have to. But this  rage goes well beyond that.

As I mentioned on my Drive page, consumers should be careful when renting  a car in an area where they may encounter a toll road. Rental companies love to rent you a transponder. But at 4 bucks a day for every day of your rental, whether you use it or not, you’re playing a premium for that convenience …. assuming you don’t get confused by the confusing ways states collect toll road money. And that’s the problem here.

No one carries coins anymore, so the old “stop and throw two quarters in a bin” toll collection is on the way out. Paying toll workers to man booths is also expensive, so it makes sense that states are looking for new ways to collect tolls. And let’s face it, with all the technology available to us, toll collection SHOULD be modernized. And that’s all well and good if you are a resident who travels those roads often. But when you’re a visitor, it’s impossible to know whether you’ll encounter a toll road, whether you’ll be able to avoid it if you want to, and how to pay for it if the old-school methods are no longer in use.

For example, Florida uses “Toll By Plate.” It’s a beautiful system. No booths, so no traffic slowdowns. You maintain your speed, and if you have a transponder, your account is automatically charged. If not, a camera snaps a photo of your plate and sends you a bill.

But here’s the problem when renting a car – that bill goes to the rental car company, not you. And it’s reasonable that the company is going to charge you a service charge for having to deal with thousands and thousands of these 75-cent bills every day. We can, and should, debate what a reasonable charge for handling this is, but the real problem is that, in this scenario, a driver has no option. I can’t swing to the right lane and throw some quarters in a machine or hand a dollar bill to a human. I have to drive through and incur a service charge. Sometimes hundreds of times more expensive than the actual toll. My only other alternative is to rent a transponder from the rental car company (see above for why that isn’t always cost-effective) or buy a transponder and carry it around with me. And that would be an option if every toll road in America shared one transponder. But there are dozens.

What’s the solution? Well, there really isn’t one. The best consumers can do is add copious amounts of research before renting a car. Map out the routes you plan to take and see whether toll roads are part of them. If so, figure out how many tolls you’ll incur, and how you can pay for them. Crunch all that information and figure out whether it’s better for you to get ripped off by your rental company for a transponder rental, or whether it’s better for you to get ripped off by your rental company for passing along a toll bill.

Either way, until states and rental car companies can come to some sort of consumer-friendly agreement, you WILL get ripped off.

Categories: News links, Rental cars, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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