TALLAHASSEE — Visitors to Florida who rent cars are being shocked by toll charges long after they get home, and enough are complaining that legislators say it could damage the state's tourist-friendly image.
In Florida, a tourist climbs behind the wheel of a rental car and enters a world of 600 miles of toll roads, more than any other state. As cash toll booths are steadily giving way to cashless, all-electronic tolling, car renters are being hit with service fees of $4 to $15 a day on top of unpaid toll charges.
The rental car industry calls it a convenience as Florida moves to all-electronic tolling. Others call it a ripoff.
"Highway robbery," shouted a major newspaper in Canada, a key Florida tourist market.
In Tallahassee, Attorney General Pam Bondi has had an open investigation for years with hundreds of written complaints, but no resolution.
"I'll sure think twice about coming to Florida again!" wrote Bruce Miller of Michigan, who found a $15 administrative fee on his credit card after he drove on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in Tampa in March.
In Miami, a federal judge will decide whether to approve a class action lawsuit against Dollar Thrifty's $15 fee for every skipped toll, by far the highest in the industry. Dollar Thrifty says the lawsuit is baseless, and other rental car companies say they disclose all fees charged to their customers.
But the uproar has caught the Legislature's attention.
"We don't want people coming here and renting cars and then getting a feeling like they're getting ripped off or getting gouged," Republican Rep. Patrick Rooney of West Palm Beach said at a recent hearing.
Rooney chairs a House transportation panel that invited testimony from rental car company lobbyists after Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, said the "backlash" from tourists justifies a closer look.
Narain cited an article in the Globe and Mail in Toronto in July under the headline "Highway Robbery" in which columnist Rosie Schwartz described being charged $91.45 for three trips to Miami.
"Beware that you don't become a victim," Schwartz wrote.
Similar fees are charged across the country, but the Sunshine State stands out for it abundance of both tourists and toll roads.
Adam Cohen of Connecticut came to Florida and was charged $24.75 by Hertz, the company's maximum fee for a rental. He told the Hartford Courant that after he complained, the company gave him a credit of $19.80.
Hertz, a crown jewel of Gov. Rick Scott's job recruiting efforts, relocated its corporate headquarters to Florida two years ago. The company agreed in 2011 to refund $11 million in charges to settle a nationwide class action lawsuit over its toll fees.
At a legislative hearing in Tallahassee, lawmakers questioned why toll fees have showed up on a customer's credit card bill as much as two months after the rental ends.
Industry lobbyists said the delay is due to third-party toll collection companies having to wait for data from state and local toll authorities and then forwarding it to rental car companies, which then charge their customers.
Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, was dismayed that Avis and Budget charge a $3.95 daily service fee even on days when the driver doesn't use a toll road.
"Why?" Santiago asked. "I hate to take advantage of our tourists."
Doug Bell, a Florida lobbyist for Avis Budget Group, noted that the maximum toll fee imposed by the two companies is the industry's lowest, at $16.95.
"There is a large infrastructure to create the system and then there is a great deal of effort and time to manage the system on a daily basis," Bell testified. "It is an expensive proposition to build and run the program."
Bell told lawmakers that most Avis and Budget reservations are made online and that contracts clearly note additional charges for tolls. He said quality service is important to rental car companies, which rely on repeat business.
Another industry giant, Enterprise Holdings, which includes Enterprise, Alamo and National, charges $3.95 a day, but only on the days when a toll is unpaid.
The industry's toll collection practices have spilled into the courts in South Florida.
Marshall Maor, a New York resident, rented a car in Florida last year and was charged $15 for each missed toll by Dollar Thrifty, plus the cost of the tolls.
He filed suit in U.S. District Court in Miami, claiming breach of contract and unfair and deceptive trade practices and accusing Dollar Thrifty of charging much more than the actual cost of the service.
"We've heard from people all over the country," said Maor's attorney, Bruce Greenberg of Newark, N.J. "It's certainly a major problem in Florida."
Dollar Thrifty wants U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez to dismiss the suit. The company says the fee was disclosed in the rental contract and that Maor voluntarily paid it.
In court filings, Dollar Thrifty says no breach of contract occurred and that Maor could have avoided driving on toll roads, paid cash to Florida toll agencies or bought the company's toll service for $10.49 a day, which includes all toll charges.
"Rather than take any of these three options, (Maor) chose to drive through an electronic toll lane without making any arrangement to pay for the toll he incurred," the company argues.
Dollar Thrifty also told the court that no law requires that fees charged to customers must "exactly match" the underlying cost of the service.
Greenberg's law firm previously sued Dollar Thrifty in Oklahoma, but a judge dismissed that lawsuit.
Rep. Narain, the Tampa Democrat who raised the issue in the Legislature, said rental car firms should improve disclosure of all fees.
"If we're not very careful about improving the disclosure process about these administrative fees, we're going to see a continued backlash," Narain said. "We're going to see more lawsuits.
But in Florida's pro-business Capitol, there is no support among legislators to impose stricter consumer safeguards but rather to let the companies police themselves.
"It could be a slippery slope when you start telling companies what they have to do," said a Pinellas County lawmaker, Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena. "With the free market, each company is going to monitor this."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.