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Cashless Tolling Makes The Road Truly Open

We Floridians love our beaches, which often stretch for miles without a break. Now drivers in the state can enjoy another welcome vista: highways unbroken by tollbooths.

Florida might be paradise, but it isn't nirvana. The tolls themselves are not actually gone. The traffic that builds up at tollbooths, however, is disappearing.

The state has launched an initiative to eliminate cash collection and replace tollbooths with electronic sensors above roadways. The program is already in place on the southernmost 47 miles of Florida’s Turnpike, in Miami-Dade County.

Unlike many places where drivers must choose between cash lanes and electronic ones - zigzagging dangerously across highways as they make their selection - on Florida’s converted turnpikes, there are only open roads. Drivers with an electronic tag, called a SunPass, pay automatically on a prepaid basis for each sensor they pass. Those without electronic tags get pictures taken of their license plates, which result in bills sent by mail. In addition to the cost of tolls, the state adds a modest $2.50 per month processing fee to those bills.

Drivers can also register for a “Toll-by-Plate” account, setting up a prepaid balance as they would with a transponder, but without the device itself. These accounts allow drivers to avoid the monthly fee.

While other states, notably including Texas, have also implemented all-electronic tolling on some roads, Florida’s 47 miles are currently the longest all-electronic stretch of toll road, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Pennsylvania Turnpike, which controls 545 miles of highways, is considering a similar move to an all-electronic system.

Florida’s system offers something for everyone. Residents can pay $4.99 for a stick-on transponder or $25 for a portable one. Visitors planning to stay awhile need only take a moment to register their license plates and put a little money into a prepaid account in order to get nearly the same level of convenience. Those just passing through, meanwhile, get the benefits of not having to set up an account, and of not having to stop for tolls, for a nominal cost.

There’s just one hitch: rental cars. According to the Florida’s Turnpike website, renters can still prepay by using their own SunPass transponders or registering their rental cars’ plates, indicating the start and end date of the rental. But most drivers instead rely on rental car companies to sort out the tolls for them.

Rental car agencies take two approaches to this task. Dollar, Thrifty and Sunshine give customers the option of unlimited toll road access for a flat fee of $6.99 per day. Those who turn down this option are expected to avoid toll roads entirely or face a $25 administrative fee on top of each toll charge they incur. Other agencies automatically charge $2 to $3 to handle their customers’ tolls and then bill customers later for the actual amounts.

This after-the-fact billing means renters can end up getting hit with unexpected fees long after their cars are back on the lot. One frustrated Thrifty customer reported that she got a bill for a 50 cent toll - plus a $25 administrative fee - three months after renting a Ford Fusion on her vacation to Orlando.

There’s also the risk of a rental agency mixing up customers’ charges. A spokeswoman for Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group explained that the $25 charge is necessary since the agency receives thousands of toll, parking and traffic violations. If the situation is such a mess, might they not occasionally make an error? At least one poster on a travel forum reported facing exactly that situation after being given a car other than the one listed on the official contract.

Florida isn’t alone in these problems. Rental customers in Colorado, which has several cashless toll roads in the Denver area, have experienced similar issues. One customer told the Denver Post that he had unknowingly racked up $125 in administrative charges on $11 of tolls over a two-day rental. He took his fight all the way to the state’s attorney general’s office before eventually getting the fees waived.

Sorting through tolls is extra work for rental agencies, and I’m not suggesting that they do it for free. But the current system of outsized administrative charges and after-the-fact billing is not good enough.

Jurisdictions with cashless tolling should require rental car agencies to build the cost of collecting tolls from their customers - including the cost of transponders - into the price of rentals. That would ensure that customers know the cost in advance. More importantly, it would prompt rental agencies to keep fees in line with actual costs and to improve efficiency in order to keep their posted rental rates competitive. Given the proper incentives, rental car companies could develop systems that would allow them to easily and immediately see tolls incurred during a rental period and add these to a customer’s bill. Regulations should also require that customers be billed for tolls within a reasonable amount of time - I would suggest 30 days - and provide an automated means of payment.

An alternative would be for transponders to be associated with individuals, rather than vehicles. In a near-ideal world - remember, all of this assumes there will still be tolls, so nothing is perfect - individuals could carry around a single device that could be mounted in any car and be read by any electronic toll sensor. That possibility may not be so far out of reach, at least on the East Coast. Florida’s SunPass has joined with E-Z Pass, the electronic toll system used in 14 states from Maine and Virginia as far west as Illinois, to discuss interoperability. If they succeed, the combined system will include about 70 percent of the country’s transponder and license plate tolls.

Until then, lawmakers and rental car agencies need to work together to find ways to efficiently pass tolls on to renters. That will allow everyone to enjoy the benefits of cashless tolling, which include saving time and money for drivers who no longer have to burn gas waiting to hand over their cash and for highway authorities that no longer face the expense of employing human toll takers.

As I said, it isn’t nirvana. But it’s a lot easier to enjoy the pleasures of the open road on a road that’s wide open.

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