Money stuff, Roadtrip stuff

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, 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, 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.

 

UPDATE!!!

For those of you who were wondering what the outcome of this saga was (did we get fined hundreds of dollars for violating Florida’s toll roads system??) read on to find out.

Towards the end of April, I noticed a charge of £12.26 ($15.66) from Alamo Rent A Car Tolls, plus a £0.25 transaction fee from my bank, on my online bank statement. I had been checking frequently to see if any toll charges from Florida would pop up, so I assumed this must be them. About a month later I finally got round to phoning Alamo’s Customer Service hotline – I wanted to find out what tolls exactly we had driven through and how much they each were. The woman I spoke to was actually very helpful and sent me an email with a breakdown of the toll charges. We were very surprised when we saw it:

Screenshot 2017-11-26 11.14.55

We had been expecting toll charges from 29th March, when we drove into Miami – but these toll charges were from 1st and 2nd April – after we had already left Miami, AND after we had already bought the SunPass! Not only that, but there was a toll charge from Texas from the day we arrived in America – 13th March – that we had not been expecting at all! What were we to make of these mysteries?

Well, the Texas charge can be explained pretty easily – when we arrived in the USA, tired and jetlagged, we asked our friend Thomas, who was meeting us at the airport, to drive. He used his phone for navigation, which unlike ours, wasn’t set to avoid tolls – voila! Toll charge. You might say he should have known better, being a native of Texas, and we did indeed say that to him. He argued that in his car he doesn’t need to avoid tolls because he has a transponder which deducts tolls automatically – but alas, we were not in his car. Thus a toll fee of $0.81 from the North Texas Tollway Authority, plus Alamo’s lovely $3.95 “TollPass Convenience Fee” (what a joke – although still significantly better than the $10 fee the customer service representative we had called from Miami had threatened us with).

But what of the three charges from the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority from 1st and 2nd April? We had bought the SunPass on 30th March so we should have been covered. I phoned the SunPass customer service helpline to find out.

After finally getting through to someone, I was told that they weren’t able to tell me why the toll charges hadn’t come out of my account because the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority was responsible for the correct charges being administered, not SunPass. They told me I would need to take it up with the Authority directly.

So I made my third call of the day. This was the most baffling of the three. After giving them my licence plate number, there was a long pause. Then the customer service representative at the other end said, “We have no record of that licence plate number, ma’am.”

Me: “Er, but I’m looking at a breakdown of the toll charges right now, and they quite clearly say there are three charges from the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority.”

“We have no record of that licence plate number, ma’am.”

“But the money has left my account! I’ve been charged!”

“We have no record of that licence plate number, ma’am.”

Computer says no.

With a heavy heart, I acknowledged that I may have reached the end of the road and wasn’t going to get any further pursuing this – and there didn’t seem to be much point, for the sake of $10.90. So what lessons can be learned from this sorry tale?

  • The SunPass is a big old waste of time. We paid $15 only to have a couple of dollars taken off, and in the end, it didn’t even work for all toll roads. SunPass, you can suck it.
  • The best advice we can give you is set your SatNav to avoid tolls, and stick to it. Trust your satellite navigation system. If you have set it to avoid tolls, it will avoid them. We should have trusted this when we drove into Miami, rather than panicking when we saw signs for toll roads (that were evidently, as it now turns out, for roads that we were not driving on) and foolishly buying a SunPass as a result. Also, if we had stuck to avoiding tolls, we would not have been charged those three fees from Orlando – we only turned off the ‘avoid tolls’ feature because we had paid for the SunPass so we wanted to get our money’s worth – fat lot of good that did!
  • If you really can’t avoid tolls, or avoiding them would add loads of time onto your journey, your car rental company will pay them for you and deduct them from your credit card. Alamo have an automatic handling “convenience fee” of $3.95 for each day that you drive through tolls (no matter how many tolls you drive through that day, whether it’s one or ten, the fee is always $.395), with a maximum limit of $19.75 per rental. It’s a bit expensive (especially when you pay a ‘handling fee’ of $3.95 for a toll that only cost $0.50 – of our $15.66 of total charges, only $3.81 of that was the actual toll charges and the rest was fees!), but still nowhere near as bad as I’ve heard some car rental companies can be. We had been led to believe from Alamo’s website that you had to arrange specially to get this service, and since we hadn’t opted to get it that was one of the reasons for our big panic when we thought we had accidentally driven through tolls, because we figured, ‘Shit, if $3.95 is the fee if you arrange it with them, what the hell is the fee if you DON’T arrange it with them?’ But it seems they charge the same fee automatically whether you arrange it with them or not – there is no additional fee for not requesting the service beforehand.
  • You can decide whether you’d rather put up with the rental company’s convenience fees or buy a SunPass, but in my opinion, since we were only in Florida six days in total and of the $10 we spent on the SunPass we still had $7.90 languishing in the account never to be recovered (plus the $5 for the transponder that you can’t get back), and since the SunPass was such a hassle to get and the account such a pain in the arse to set up, AND it didn’t even work half the time and we were still charged extra on top of it – the SunPass is totally not worth it, and you’re better off sticking with the car rental company’s “convenience fees” as long as they’re not too outrageous.

So, all in all, it could have been worse. Considering we were expecting potentially hundreds of dollars of fees, $15.66 ($7.83 each) doesn’t seem so bad after all. (But Florida – your toll road system still sucks.)

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