Monday, January 24, 2011

"There’s reason to keep your eyes open and a hand on your wallet."

For Super Bowl visitors, it's buyer beware on toll roads


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2011

For Super Bowl visitors, or anyone else who uses a rental car on North Texas toll roads, there’s reason to keep your eyes open and a hand on your wallet.

Driving a rental vehicle on the toll roads can get costly, both because the North Texas Tollway Authority charges its highest rates for most such customers and because the car companies can tack on “convenience” fees that in some cases far outstrip the cost of the tolls.

NTTA officials warn fans coming for the big game — and locals who use rentals — to pay attention to their rental contracts so they won’t be surprised by bills that sometimes don’t show up until the rental cars are returned.

The steepest fees can be avoided by setting up temporary accounts with NTTA or by agreeing in advance to smaller fees as part of toll-paying services offered by the biggest car companies.

But with the Super Bowl less than two weeks away, NTTA officials say drivers need to be aware that failing to take these steps can lead to big bills for drivers who use toll roads in rental cars. That’s especially true because many visitors will be unfamiliar with North Texas and its heavy reliance on toll roads.

“Some rental-car agencies, especially the small ones, will just add an additional cost into their pricing and they just pay for tolls,” said Clayton Howe, assistant executive director for operations at NTTA. “Some offer a flat fee — they look like another one of those add-on fees you see when you are renting — and you can choose to opt in or opt out. But our research shows there are about 2,000 rental locations spread out over the metroplex, and each one has the right to operate a little differently.”

Here’s why it’s confusing: NTTA no longer has any cash toll booths on its roads. Instead, it electronically bills customers who have a TollTag on their windshield. And for those who don’t — and that includes most rental car customers — it uses thousands of cameras stationed along the roads to take pictures of the license plates.

Being billed by camera already jacks up the toll rate by 50 percent, But the real problem is that the bills go to the owners, not the drivers. In the case of rental cars, that means they go to the rental agencies. And what those companies do varies.

This month, NTTA board members reacted with surprise when staff members told them rental-car agencies levy fees that often are many times the cost of the tolls.

“We’re hearing from our customers, and they are seeing bills for up to $25 per toll,” Howe said last week.

Neil Abrams, president of a consulting firm whose clients help rental companies process their toll charges, said most customers will never see hefty fees for toll use — not if they buy the much cheaper options that nearly all of the major rental firms offer.

“Most of the major rental brands have technologies installed in the vehicles and connected to their rental operating systems which charge renters for the tolls, plus a small daily or weekly charge for the service — which is not mandatory,” Abrams said.

Customers who see the higher surcharges, he said, are those who decline the optional toll charges at the time of rental and require the toll agencies to research and bill each of the invoices sent their way by the toll authority.

“It’s buyer beware,” Abrams said, noting that toll authorities routinely charge an administrative fee of $25 or more for every toll transaction that goes into collections.

NTTA’s collection system includes just such a process, and it has garnered a great deal of criticism from toll payers and left many customers owing hundreds or even thousands of dollars in charges.

NTTA said the rental-car fees usually affect only a few customers. Each day, about 13,000 of the authority’s 1.4 million daily toll transactions are incurred by rental cars. Most of those are by local drivers, many of whom are already TollTag customers. Many, too, are using loaners from repair shops that have TollTags installed, he said.

“But the Super Bowl is a very atypical time for us,” Howe said. Most of those rental customers will be from out of town, unfamiliar with the toll roads and in cars that don’t have TollTags.

That’s why NTTA suggests fans and others look closely at their contracts when they pick up their rental cars. If they don’t like the terms of the toll payment options offered by the car companies, they have another route to consider, Howe said.

NTTA allows customers to set up temporary toll accounts for rental cars or any car they are using temporarily. To do so, customers must call the authority and use a credit or debit card to put a deposit on a temporary toll account.

The tolls will be charged directly to the driver’s credit card, and any excess money paid will be refunded when the car is returned.

“The NTTA is committed to providing all customers a convenient way of paying for tolls to avoid additional fines and fees,” Howe said in a statement explaining the program, known as the Zip Pass. “Visitors will have the peace of mind that comes with knowing all their tolls have been paid in a timely fashion, while having the benefit of traveling D-FW via toll roads.”

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