A rant about Florida’s toll roads

Some friends of mine had gone to Florida and rented a car a couple of years ago, and their advice to me was: buy a SunPass, because you can drive through tolls without even realising as a lot of them don’t have booths, and then get hit with a bill at the end by your car hire company who then charge extra handling fees. The SunPass is an automatic toll deduction system used in Florida where you buy a transponder which you put on the windshield of your car, and any tolls you drive through are automatically deducted from your toll account. We looked into the SunPass before we got to Florida and it was $5 just to buy a transponder, and then you had to top it up with a minimum starting credit of $10. Since we were only going to be in Florida less than a week, and since the SunPass, unlike other automated toll systems such as E-ZPass, which is used in multiple states in the northeast and midwest, is ONLY used in Florida, we didn’t think it would be worth the money. The other option would have been to pay our rental car company something ridiculous like $3.95 a day in handling fees PLUS the cost of whatever tolls we drove through. We opted instead to set our SatNav to avoid tolls, and we figured that any toll roads that were unavoidable we would just pay in cash. (Our friends had advised us that cash booths could usually be found in the far right lane.)

So as we made our merry way from St. Petersburg to Miami, we received the shock of our lives when we suddenly started seeing signs like this:

Florida_SunPass
Image courtesy of Frommer’s
Toll violators prosecuted
Photo credit: Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles
Sun Sentinel_$100 Penalty
Photo courtesy of Sun Sentinel
NBC 6 South Florida_SunPass
Photo credit: NBC 6 South Florida

We started panicking, as there was no way to exit the road we were on, and the signs were saying there was a $25 toll violation fine, even though the actual toll itself only cost $0.50. I started worrying that I was going to get hit with not only the cost of any tolls we drove through, but also the rental car company’s handling fees AND now these extra ridiculous fines. It all seemed grossly unfair as there was no way to leave the road, nowhere to pay cash – it all seemed purposefully designed to ensnare tourists, a bit like Prague’s transport system – great if you’re a local, practically impossible if you’re a tourist. We were also deeply confused because we had set our SatNav to avoid tolls, so it wasn’t clear to us at any point if we’d actually driven through any tolls, but we saw so many signs (each toll was only $0.50, but with the toll violation fine that’s $25.50 every time you drive through one) that we figured we’d driven through about three or four.

We called the rental car company as soon as we got to Miami and explained we’d accidentally driven through some tolls and asked what would happen – would we be hit just with the cost of the tolls, or would there be additional handling fees and toll violation fines as well? Actually we called twice to see if we got the same answer both times, and we didn’t – the first time we called, someone said we would only be charged for the cost of the tolls, which couldn’t have been more than about $2, and the second time they said we would be charged a $10 handling fee (it wasn’t clear to me if this was a one-time handling fee, or if you get charged $10 extra for every toll you drive through). It wasn’t very comforting to us that the rental car company didn’t even seem to consistently know their own policy, and I still wasn’t convinced that we wouldn’t get hit with toll violation fines as well, so we decided to buy a SunPass in the end.

We bought the transponder for $5 from a pharmacy and then had to create an online account. Of course, this was also completely tourist-unfriendly – you had to give a US address and zip code, and it wouldn’t let you top up the initial $10 starting credit without a US bank card. Fortunately, we had our friend T in Texas, so we called him to help us out, and were able to use his address and card details. But what a pain if you’re a tourist and don’t have any friends in the US! You’re basically screwed if you’re a tourist from outside the US and don’t have friends, because you’re unable to buy a SunPass, and so you’re forced to pay out loads of money to your rental car company so they can handle the toll fees for you because there are no other options. Even buying the SunPass was a waste of money in the end – we checked our account when we left Florida, and only $2.10 had been deducted, which means the other $7.90 of starting credit we had been forced to pay would never be used, plus the $5 we’d spent buying the transponder.

I don’t know what conclusions there really are to be drawn from this, other than that if you’re a tourist from outside the US renting a car and you’re in Florida less than a week, there are no good options for you. We still don’t know if we unwittingly drove through any tolls that first day when we drove into Miami (our SatNav had been set to avoid toll roads so it was unclear to us if we really had driven through any), and are awaiting our final bill from the rental car company with trepidation.

When we were looking into the SunPass and Florida’s toll roads (the first thing we did when we arrived in a panic at our Airbnb in Miami), we discovered that Florida has more toll roads than any other state in the US and has slowly been making its toll roads cashless since about 2014, which is great for local commuters but a nightmare for tourists. It’s a trap and there’s no way out of it – either you pay $15 for a SunPass, most of which you will never use (if you’re even lucky enough to have someone in the US whose address and credit card details you can use), or you pay $3.95 a day to your rental car company plus any tolls you drive through. The third option might be setting your Sat Nav to avoid tolls, but it seemed like in some places it was unavoidable and the signage was so confusing and unfriendly that it wasn’t always clear whether you’d driven through a toll or not. We thought Florida was meant to have a tourist-friendly image, but this is seriously going to damage that reputation. We were not the first people to get hit by this and we have not been the first people to complain about it and call Florida out on it either: see this and this.

 

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