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Carlton: Welcome to Florida, the Rip You Off While You Ride State!

Once I was renting a car at Tampa International Airport, headed south to write about places freshly uprooted by the latest hurricane.

The clerk behind the counter politely pushed the usual extra insurance (thanks, I have insurance), tried to get me to upgrade to an SUV (car is fine) and then a new one: a GPS device, back when such things were big and clunky and novel — and a bargain, the clerk assured me, at $60 a week. No thanks, I said.

"Get you coming and going," said a man next to me at the counter squinting at the fine print on his own contract.

So here's a real rental car outrage for you in a state that supposedly wants its visitors to go home happy:

Tourists are getting smacked with unexpected rental car fees for highway tolls — an up-to-$15-a-day "service charge," plus the tolls themselves, after they drive through automated toll booths that don't take actual cash.

For the record, Florida has some 600 miles of toll roads, more than any other state, and we are quickly moving to all-electronic, cashless tolling. So there's a pretty good chance drivers not-from-here will at some point find themselves going through a toll booth that doesn't take money — and getting charged that fat fee.

Welcome to Florida, the Rip You Off While You Ride State.

Justifiable outrage has poured in to Tallahassee, using choice phrases like "bilking the tourists," and "stealing millions of dollars from people who are on vacation."

A man from Michigan wanted to know how the heck $2.12 he owed in tolls turned into a $32.12 bill. He was luckier than the San Francisco woman who reported that for not paying $4.61 in tolls, she was charged a $75 service fee. Or the Buffalo visitor who said those fees added up to $95.22 for $5.22 in unpaid tolls.

No one appears to mind paying the tolls they actually owed — just the obscenely high markups many never saw coming. Clearly, this must be stopped. And surely, we can look to our Legislature to fiercely protect our image as a tourist-friendly state, right?

Right?

As the Times Steve Bousquet reported this week, a proposal that would have limited fees to $10 a day died, revised to a "baby step" bill requiring things like rental car companies posting terms in a conspicuous place and driver warnings at automated toll booths.

Attorney General Pam Bondi's office says they are in "settlement negotiations" with unnamed rental companies and that there's even a possibility her office could sue. That has consumer protection potential, should it ever actually happen.

Hey, I'm all for buyer beware. I'm also all for tourists paying their fair share. But too many have been caught unaware by a practice that smacks of predatory price-gouging of people who come upon a toll booth that can't take cash.

So here's a practical question for those rental car companies. Since we're quickly moving toward all-electronic tolling, why don't they install those passes we all sport on our car windows these days — transponders, they're called — and charge customers a nominal surcharge, plus the toll if it's used?

Oh, right. Not much profit in that.

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com.

Carlton: Welcome to Florida, the Rip You Off While You Ride State! 02/09/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 9, 2016 6:53pm]
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