Are Rental Car Companies Taking an Electronic Toll On You — Literally?

“Y ou know what a reasonable bit of advocacy would be? How about when someone has a receipt for the toll and still gets dinged by the rental company”, Darth Chocolate commented after having read this article pertaining to whether or not rental car companies should be able to profit from toll roads as posted by Christopher Elliott earlier today. “The consumer has a legitimate beef, and deserves relief.”

In that article, Christopher Elliott specifically discusses the Golden Gate Bridge — a “driving highlight of any visit to Northern California” — which switched to all-electronic tolls last year, as I first reported in this article on Sunday, May 12, 2013.

In what may seem like a conspiracy by a local authority and a rental car company, FlyerTalk member milohoss was charged $25.80 by Hertz for driving a rental car across the Golden Gate Bridge — which at that time normally charged a six dollar toll…

…but here is a chart on the toll rates — collected only when traveling southbound into San Francisco — which are current at the time when this article that you are reading right now was posted:

Golden Gate Bridge Toll Rates

Number of Axles
Pay-By-Plate: License Plate Account,
One-Time Payment, Toll Invoice 
FasTrak
Toll 
2 Axles and Motorcycles
$7.00
$6.00
3 Axles
$21.00
$18.00
4 Axles
$28.00
$24.00
5 Axles
$35.00
$30.00
6 Axles
$42.00
$36.00
7 Axles or More
$49.00
$42.00
Carpools
Not Applicable
$4.00

Furious about this charge for not signing up for the PlatePass system, milohoss is strongly considering filing a class action lawsuit to “ban these toll scams on bridges or tunnels where you do not have any other options.”

Some FlyerTalk members chastised milohoss — who usually pays cash at toll booths and does not use express lanes — for not performing due diligence on the fact that payment of tolls on the Golden Gate Bridge are all electronic with no option to pay cash. They also say that milohoss could have used a different bridge, but milohoss argues that there really is no other option to drive to Marin from San Francisco and that a detour via another bridge would significantly add time to the drive — not to mention use more fuel.

While I am certainly not interested in considering joining in on a class-action lawsuit at this time, I tend to initially conditionally agree with both milohoss and Christopher Elliott; but Darth Chocolate posted this comment to Christopher Elliott: “Well, when consumers are idiots, it is quite difficult to take their side. Besides, why should only governments profit from tolls? You seem to have no problem with the third party toll collectors getting a cut, why shouldn’t the rental companies get some love?”

Freedom of Choice?

The official Internet web site of the Golden Gate Bridge indicates that “All-Electronic Tolling makes it easy to cross the Golden Gate — no more stopping, no fumbling for change. A variety of payment options gives you freedom of choice and helps speed your travel.”

For me, “freedom of choice” means having one lane open for motorists who wish to pay cash on the spot — even if I have to wait in a line of vehicles, as has happened to me at a toll booth on Florida’s Turnpike within the past couple of years; and that highway will eventually be all electronic for toll collection throughout its entire length — without having to go through the process of applying for and opening an account, ensuring that the account initially has a minimum balance of $50.00 paid in advance with cash only or $25.00 when paying by credit card; and having to pay a refundable deposit of $20.00 on top of that…

…and if you obtain a FasTrak toll tag at a number of locations in the San Francisco bay area — which include supermarkets — you get to pay $5.00 for that toll tag which is pre-loaded with a pre-paid toll balance of $5.00.

To be fair, there are several options to pay a toll when using the Golden Gate Bridge:

  • FasTrak Although there seems to be no outright fee to purchase a FasTrak toll tag unless you purchase it at a location such as a supermarket, you do have to pay $25.00, which includes a $20.00 refundable deposit and five dollars in pre-paid tolls. Despite paying discounted tolls with this system, either the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District or PlatePass gets to keep your money in advance interest-free until you pay your tolls. I hope those toll discounts offset the lost use of your money by paying in advance — time value of money, you know.
  • Pay-By-Plate There are three options available:
    1. License Plate Account Register your license plate to pay as you go and forgo the discounted benefits offered by FasTrak. There is no pre-paid balance and no extra fees.
    2. One-Time Payment This is the option which should have been considered by milohoss where drivers who infrequently cross the Golden Gate Bridge may pay their toll one payment at a time and want to pay using cash. There are no extra fees for this service, but you must either find a location where you can pay in cash, or use a credit card to pay your toll up to 30 days in advance or within 48 hours after you drive across the bridge.
    3. Toll Invoice This is an option which milohoss probably would have preferred to use, but without any additional charge by Hertz. However, the invoice for the toll is generated and mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle, which would be Hertz — ergo, the $25.80 fee, which is what angered milohoss in the first place. Perhaps there should be an option available where the customer of the rental car company can pay for tolls to the rental car company in advance to avoid be charged fees — especially if the customer knows in advance his or her route for the duration of the rental period and knows in advance what tolls he or she will be required to pay.

 

Further information and advice for drivers of rental vehicles who want to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge is available here.

Rental Car Service Fees and Charges

A check at the official Internet web site for Hertz indicates that “Hertz customers will pay a service fee of $4.95 per rental day, including any days when customers do not use PlatePass, plus the Toll Authority’s posted cash toll rate or the highest undiscounted toll rate for any incurred tolls. The maximum service charge (excluding tolls) is $24.75 per month. After the rental car is returned, your credit card will be charged separately for the posted cash toll rate for the tolls used (as opposed to any discounted electronic toll rate) and the applicable service fee. Charges will appear on your credit card by PlatePass. You will receive an itemized listing of all tolls and charges by mail.”

The official Internet web site of PlatePass lists electronic toll facilities currently in use in 21 states — an additional state was added since last year — the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Toll facilities which are marked with an asterisk no longer accept cash — and last year, there was no asterisk next to the listing of the Golden Gate Bridge indicating that it no longer accepts cash to pay its tolls. Now the Golden Gate Bridge is not listed there at all.

Furthermore — according to Hertz — if I want a receipt of the tolls which I have paid electronically, I have to access the official Internet web site of PlatePass?

Okay, so let me get this straight — I need to pay $4.95 per rental day just for the privilege of paying a toll — and then I have to first hunt down for the receipt for the tolls which I have paid?

I would rather stop and fumble for change. That is why they 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 always sorted out my coins before driving the car. I pull up to the toll booth, pay my toll and ask for a receipt, which I usually receive immediately before continuing on my trip. To me, that was easy and quick; it did not cost me any extra; and I had my receipt in hand.

I get the arguments that electronic tolls can be beneficial: no slowing down or stopping, no idling engines which can pollute the environment, and possibly less expensive tolls. 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.

Choices

Nevertheless, I would prefer to have a choice. As I said before, keep one manned toll booth and one automatic cash toll machine lane which dispenses receipts while having all of the remaining lanes electronic. 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. This is the part where I agree with milohoss

…but let me also add that I disagree with Christopher Elliott on one minor point: I have no problem with rental car companies profiting from toll roads and bridges — as long as the consumer has a choice and as long as the fees are reasonable without engaging in practices which can be considered gouging. Some consumers might find that paying a fee to a rental car company is convenient. Why deny them of that convenience and a chance for the rental car companies to add something extra to their bottom line? Why not have it as an option for those who want it?

What About Electronic Tolling Errors?

Errors can occur as well with electronic tolling — such as this report where a frustrated motorist who commutes from Gaithersburg to Alexandria in the express lanes on the Capital Beltway pays the tolls with his E-ZPass account, which is deducted automatically from his credit card — but he received a fine of $17,000.00 for $36.00 in unpaid tolls. Consumers should not have to go through an unnecessarily incredible burden to prove that the agency which collected the tolls committed an error.

Summary

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.

In my opinion, consumers should have more options when paying tolls for highways and bridges — specifically the option to pay a toll in cash on the spot; or even have an automatic toll machine which accepts credit cards as well as cash so that the consumer would not have to pay fees or deposits in advance. Rental car companies should be able to charge a nominal convenience fee if the customer chooses that as an option rather than being required to pay a fee; and the fees charged by rental car companies should not be exorbitant to the point of gouging…

…and in all cases, the process should be easy for the consumer — with information about it being as clear and as concise as possible.

What are your thoughts? Should bridges, tunnels and highways offer no other options other than electronic tolls — and should rental car companies have the option to profit from them?

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