As consumer outrage grows, state Legislature refuses to cap rental car toll charges

Efforts to rein in companies' "ridiculous" charges run into roadblocks in the Legislature.
A view of the I-275 northbound Sunpass lane at the Skyway Bridge photographed from a reporter's car last year. Tourists have flooded Attorney General Pam Bondi's office with complaints over high rental car fees for covering electronic highway tolls.Yet, state lawmakers have killed a push for capping the fees. [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]
A view of the I-275 northbound Sunpass lane at the Skyway Bridge photographed from a reporter's car last year. Tourists have flooded Attorney General Pam Bondi's office with complaints over high rental car fees for covering electronic highway tolls.Yet, state lawmakers have killed a push for capping the fees. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published February 5 2016
Updated February 8 2016

UPDATE: Gov. Rick Scott's administration provided a statement Monday in response to this article. The following is from the Department of Management Services, which says that the current contract with Enterprise, Alamo and National will save taxpayers $1.9 million over five years.

"All rental vehicle companies who bid for this contract included fees for this service," DMS said. "We negotiated the best possible rate for the State of Florida. The state encourages its agencies to provide renters with transponders in order to avoid use of the service."

The five-year contract is worth $16 million a year to Enterprise and its sister companies, Alamo and National, DMS said.

Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz also noted DMS has used this structure for toll payment since 2007, before Scott became governor.

TALLAHASSEE — Motorists outraged that rental car companies charge unexpected fees for unpaid highway tolls won't be getting much sympathy from the Florida Legislature.

Hundreds of tourists have complained about being charged up to $15 a day by rental car firms, in addition to tolls, after they rented cars in Florida and drove through automated toll booths that don't accept cash.

"Is this some scam?" said Joseph Monfredo of Worcester, Mass., whose trip to Orlando was spoiled by a credit card charge of $15 from Dollar Rent A Car for an unpaid toll of 79 cents. "It makes us sound like criminals."

Tourists say they did not see the fine print in their rental car agreements disclosing the fees. Others said they didn't know they could rent an electronic toll device to avoid the excess charges.

Florida has more than 600 miles of toll roads, many of them clustered in South Florida and Orlando. The state is rapidly shifting to all-electronic tolling in a tourism state that's also one of the most profitable rental car markets in the world.

But the rental car industry now sports a black eye in Florida. So many people have complained to Attorney General Pam Bondi, a business-friendly Republican, that she said her office is privately negotiating settlements with rental car firms that could involve fines.

"However, if agreements are not reached, we are prepared to litigate," Bondi's office said.

But as complaints pile up, the Legislature swiftly killed a proposal to limit the fees to $10 a day.

Rep. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, said she dropped the idea after it clashed head-on with the pro-business philosophy of Republicans, who likely would have killed her bill (HB 1119) in the House Transportation & Ports Subcommittee on Tuesday.

"Up here, you know how far that went," Jacobs said. "So I'll take a baby step. Can they just tell us what the fees are?"

When Jacobs eliminated the fee cap, she won support from Republicans. "I like this bill, now that the $10 has been taken out of it," said Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola Beach.

Jacobs' revised "baby step" bill requires signs at automated toll booths to warn drivers, and rental car companies must post all terms in a conspicuous location or provide it in electronic rental agreements. After the fee cap was removed, industry lobbyists endorsed Jacobs' bill.

As a state employee, Jacobs must rent cars from Enterprise and two affiliates, Alamo and National, which last year won a multiyear contract with the state Department of Management Services.

Those companies are allowed to charge renters a "service fee" of $3.95 a day for every day a toll is unpaid and a maximum fee of $19.75 per rental — fees that Gov. Rick Scott's administration is passing on to taxpayers.

Jacobs said it's wrong for the state to endorse the practice and to pass the fees on to her constituents, the taxpayers.

"Even on ourselves, we're paying more as a state," Jacobs said. "We could have negotiated that clause away."

The Department of Management Services did not explain why it allows those fees to be charged to taxpayers for tens of thousands of car rentals in the course of a year.

The idea of restricting rental car fees has even less of a chance in the Florida Senate, where Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg controls transportation issues.

Brandes, who calls himself "libertarian-leaning," is philosophically opposed to the government setting prices of products and said the state should not dictate what companies charge customers.

"This is a private transaction between rental car companies and customers, as I see it," Brandes said. "My goal is, if we do anything, it's to ensure that there's proper disclosure."

Brandes said it's "way out of line" for a rental car company to charge $15 a day as a service fee for unpaid tolls — which Dollar and Thrifty impose — and he suggested frustrated consumers dispute the charges.

Enterprise Holdings, the world's largest rental car company, has donated $475,000 in campaign contributions to legislators and candidates in the past three election cycles in Florida, most of it to the Republican Party of Florida and to its candidates in the Legislature.

A spokeswoman for Enterprise, Laura Bryant, said the company has been "pro-actively" working to resolve the issue of unpaid tolls across the country since 2011.

Bryant said Enterprise has had no settlement talks with the state Attorney General's Office.

She said the company urges motorists to buy its TollPass automated transponder for $3.95 a day, plus tolls, for a maximum cost of $19.75 per rental to avoid service charges.

"No one wants to be surprised with a fine for unpaid violations after traveling," said John Murphy, an Enterprise official. "This automated service, in conjunction with our ongoing work with local officials, supports our efforts to ensure any tolls or outstanding fines are swiftly paid."

A spokeswoman for Avis Budget Group, Alice Pereira, said customers "know and anticipate that these optional items are assessed a daily fee." She declined to comment on settlement negotiations with Bondi's office and said Avis opposed the $10 fee cap in Jacobs' bill because "we feel that legislatures should not engage in price regulation."

In Tallahassee, the first attempt to rein in rental car toll charges died a quick and quiet death in the Capitol last week without even a hearing.

The bill (HB 493) was filed by Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat who often forges alliances with Republicans. Having given up on his own bill, he is now a co-sponsor of Jacobs' watered-down effort.

"You know, there's a practical reality to getting bills done up here," Rouson said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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