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Watch Out for Surprise Toll Charges

Attention drivers: Many of those freeways you’re using may not be free for long. More states are turning to toll roads to raise cash to fund  road repairs—demolishing toll booths and switching to electronic, cashless tolling systems, such as EZPass. These e-toll highways can make driving less irksome by eliminating coin machines and stops at the toll plaza.

Taking its toll
Toll payments are handled differently by different municipalities. There are generally two e-tolling methods:

  • Toll-by-plate systems will send you a bill 

—or—

  • Your usage is tracked by a transponder in your car linked to an account that tracks how much you owe.

To muddle matters, new municipal variable tolling systems have become popular. This is where toll prices fluctuate depending on traffic congestion or time-of-day (for example, a higher toll for rush hour). The objective of this system is to reduce congestion, pollution and improve traffic flow. With fees as high as $40, its not without its controversy.

Transportation’s new frontier
With more and more roads switching to tolls, as well as higher and higher tolls on the existing ones, commuters and frequent road trippers have to weigh the higher cost of driving versus the time they want to expend on each trip.

Inconsistencies of policies and charges are making it more unpredictable to plan a trip. Florida is notorious for having an abundance of toll roads, making a dent in budgets. Dialed-up prices for drivers on the I-66 in Northern Virginia are forcing some to change commuting habits. There are complaints that the toll boards are displaying inaccurate dynamic rates. According to one commuter’s story in the Washington Post, “The idea that you can arrive at I-66 and look up at the sign and then make a decision sort of betrays a misunderstanding of commuting,” she said, noting that alternates routes have to be chosen ahead of time. “If you’re looking at the sign, you’re now limited in your options for alternate routes.”

Carpooler discounts to use high-occupancy lanes is also a game changer. These ‘fast lanes’ can cut your commute and save money, but can be a challenge for drivers—who need to be more flexible in work/home scheduling. And can ratchet up your stress level knowing someone else is counting on you for a ride.

Keep eyes on the road—and on your EZPass account
Inconsistencies in how different states process out-of-state transponders will make you think twice. In some places, crossing a state line could lose your EZPass discount and you’ll pay the full cash toll.

“Gotcha” rental fees
E-toll is good in many ways, but not for people renting cars. Rental customers are increasingly confused about how to handle paying the tolls (Will my transponder work out-of-state?). On top of that, many are getting dinged by car rental companies charging surprise, hard-to-decipher and/or exorbitant fees for the “convenience” of driving a rental vehicle on a toll road.

According to car rental website AutoSlash, “Car rental companies charge through the nose for electronic toll billing programs such as EZPass or FasTrak…Between the tolls themselves and surcharges from the rental companies, opting for a toll transponder is never a moneywise deal. Some of the per-day surcharges may shock you.”

How to keep costs down
Be careful choosing your rental car company. Fees vary widely. Some will charge a fee for each day of your rental after crossing just one electronic toll. Use this list (courtesy of AutoSlash) to see what companies charge a fair rate for transponders.

Hertz charges a $4.95 fee (plus the toll) for every day you use a toll road.

Avis, Budget, Alamo, National, and Enterprise charge a $3.95 daily fee for every day you rent the car (whether or not you use a toll) up to a $19.75 maximum per rental—plus the tolls, of course.

Payless works similarly to sister companies Avis and Budget, but it’s a little cheaper at $2.95 per day, up to a $14.75 maximum fee.

Dollar and Thrifty offer an all-inclusive option for $10.49 per rental day (or $52.49 per week) that includes all tolls. Decline it, though, and any toll you fail to pay in cash will cost you a $15 administrative fee.

Fox offers a similar product as Dollar and Thrifty in some areas, but the price varies—$8.99 per day in Florida and $11.49 per day in Northern California.

Advantage doesn’t disclose their daily fees, but reportedly runs $7 per day. (It may vary by region.) Sister company E-Z doesn’t even mention anything about a toll pass option.

Avoid toll roads. Get help by using your cars GPS or your phones navigation app. Waze will show you toll roads and prices. Google Maps gives you the option to avoid toll roads. While using the app, pick a destination, and then tap the three dots icon in the top right corner of the screen to pull up a settings menu. Select Route options and you can use the toggle to find a route that avoids tolls.

Pay for it yourself. In some states, renters can avoid the fees by paying tolls in advance online.

Block the rental transponder. If your rental comes with a transponder and you dont want to use it, try to close it. They are usually mounted in a lead-lined box that opens and closes. Closing the box hides it. Youll need to bring your own transponder—when you pick up the rental car, either call the provider or log into your account online to add your rental cars license plate. If you travel frequently, it might be worth ordering a second transponder to add to your account.

Resources: AutoSlash, NPR, CNBC, Consumer Reports, USA Today, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Points Guy, CreditCards.com, WHDH.com, The Washington Post