Get ready for “Open road tolling”

TollByPlate

Photo of a rental car taken from a Florida overhead toll gantry with the license number clearly visible. The owner of the car (you or the rental company) later receives a bill, unless you arrange to pay the bill online.

Say goodbye to the toll booth. Say hello to open road tolling.

In Florida, it’s already here. Massachusetts will convert the Massachusetts Turnpike on October 28, 2016. And Ohio may be next.

Toll roads, of course,  have been around for decades, and so too has the familiar toll booth, with a person inside who collects your money and gives you change. This basic arrangement remained unchanged until the 1990s, when electronic tolling systems were introduced, initially to relieve congestion on some of the busiest toll roads and bridges in the Northeast. Electronic tolling enables motorists to drive through the toll lanes without stopping, so long as they have a toll account and a transponder affixed to their windshield.

E-Z Pass is the largest system of this type, encompassing 38 agencies across 16 states, concentrated in the Northeast where most of the toll roads and bridges are located. Three Southeastern states have their own electronic toll collection systems, all incompatible with E-Z Pass: South Carolina (Palmetto Pass), Georgia (Peach Pass), and Florida (Sunpass).

Initially, electronic tolling used existing conventional toll lanes. As its popularity grew, especially in congested metropolitan areas, it became more common to see only one or two cash lanes, with the rest being electronic only. There was also grumbling from motorists about needing to slow down to 5 or 10 miles per hour (in a lane where formerly they would need to stop.) Because the slower speed was for the safety of the toll workers, not any technical requirement, some plazas were redesigned to allow electronic toll customers to drive at faster speeds.

This evolved into “open road tolling” where motorists stay on the highway mainline and need not slow down at all. The toll plaza on the New Hampshire Turnpike and the Woodbury plaza on the New York Thruway were rebuilt to take advantage of this, relieving long-standing traffic bottlenecks in the process. E-Z Pass customers stay to the left, maintaining 65 MPH speed, while cash customers stay to the right and stop at traditional toll booths. The tolling electronics are placed in overhead gantries, along with a system that photographs license plates, originally intended to catch scofflaws driving through without paying.

So that brings us to the present day and the latest toll road trend – the completely cashless open road tolling system where there are no toll booths at all and no option for paying a cash toll on the spot. Cars without a toll transponder receive a bill in the mail, sent to the registered owner of the car whose license plate was photographed (which tends to be slightly higher than an electronically collected toll.)

All electronic tolling certainly has a number of advantages, especially in congested areas. There’s no slowing down for the toll booth, no weaving to get into the proper toll lane (cash or electronic), and no fumbling for change. Everybody wins, right?

That may be true if you are driving your own car. But with a rental car, things get more complicated and potentially much more expensive.

On two recent Florida trips, my rental car came with its own SunPass, with an ON / OFF switch. Once you turn it ON and drive through an electronic toll barrier, you are agreeing to the rental company’s terms and conditions for using it. But read the rental contract very carefully – some charge an extra $4 a day for the entire length of the rental regardless of how much the SunPass is used. Thus, for a two week rental, a single $1 toll could cost you $56!

Therefore, if your rental car has a toll transponder with an ON / OFF switch, make certain it is turned OFF and leave it OFF for the entire period you have the car. (And check the wording on the switch very carefully – on my rental car, ON was down and OFF was up – backwards from a conventional light switch.)

But if you do nothing else and drive on roads using Toll By Plate, your outcome may be even worse. The signs may boast “We bill you with Toll By Plate” but remember those bills will go to the registered owner of the car, which is the rental company, not you. Expect a bill from the rental company with a substantial service charge tacked on – after all, the rental company expects you to use their transponder for $4 a day.

The answer is, you must pay your own tolls yourself and leave the rental company out of it. Fortunately, there are two ways you can do this:

1. Use your own transponder. If you don’t already have one, you can get one through any of the agencies issuing them – you need not be a resident of that state. (And remember South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida are not E-Z Pass states, so you will need to get a SunPass when visiting Florida, for example.)

2. Establish your own Toll-By-Plate account. We used this technique successfully on two Florida trips. Once you reach your hotel or some other place where you can safely go online, enter the license plate number from your rental car into your account with the dates of your rental. Most toll roads offer you a grace period, so you can backdate the starting date even if you have already incurred a toll. You will probably need to fund this account by means of a credit card, but this will enable you to pay your own tolls yourself, at the Toll-By-Plate rate, and leave the rental company out of it.

Looking ahead, it’s clear that open road tolling is here to stay. But because people can no longer “opt out” by paying a cash toll (unless they avoid the toll road completely, which often is not practical) a couple of changes are in order:

1. A national toll system where any transponder is universally accepted by all toll roads and bridges. A good step in this direction would for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to abandon their own systems and become part of E-Z Pass.

2. Consumer protections for rental cars. Because rental car customers can no longer avoid the high prices connected to the rental company’s transponder by simply going through a cash toll lane (and the Toll By Plate option is not made clear, either by the toll road or the rental company) it ought to be illegal for rental companies to reap huge profits off this. Customers ought to be able to use the transponder in their rental car for the cost of the tolls incurred alone, plus a reasonable service charge.

 

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