Commuters may grow weary of making the beautiful drive across the Golden Gate Bridge every workday, but for many visitors to San Francisco, crossing one of the world’s most famous bridges in a car is a must-do experience.
The thrill of rolling beneath the soaring international orange towers in a rental car, however, has grown more confusing — and often more costly — with the end of toll collectors, the advent of all-electronic tolling and the signs warning drivers not to stop at the toll booths.
Most Bay Area motorists have learned in the two years since the bridge laid off its toll takers that they can pay by using a FasTrak transponder, letting cameras snap their license plates and mail them a bill, or paying online, by phone or at a kiosk or store up to 30 days in advance or within two days after crossing the span.
But few tourists know those intricacies and are often persuaded by rental car companies to use their toll services, which can end up adding a few dollars a day — plus tolls — to their bills. It comes as a surprise to some car renters who don’t learn about the charges until they get their credit card bills. At the Bay Bridge and the region’s other toll crossings, all owned by the state, drivers still have the option of stopping and paying cash.
“Three to four weeks after people left their hearts in San Francisco, they find out they also left a good chunk of their credit,” said John Goodwin, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission who fields a lot of FasTrak complaints.
When the Golden Gate moved to all-electronic toll collection, the bridge district said rental car companies would be responsible for paying the tolls, and it would be between them and their customers to figure out how to make that work. The result is a morass of different programs with different rental car companies that contract with different toll service providers.
Dana Fehler, a bridge district spokeswoman, said the agency has worked with car rental companies to help eliminate the confusion and ensure that they let customers know they can pay their tolls directly to the district without incurring what the companies call service or convenience fees.
“We don’t want people to feel that they’re being gouged by the extra fees they’re paying to rental-car companies,” she said. So the bridge district offers a one-time payment option for those who don’t want to get a bill in the mail — or have one sent to their car rental agency.
Visitor or local, in your own car or a rental, anyone who crosses the bridge without a FasTrak transponder can pay their Golden Gate Bridge toll online, over the phone or at one of 130 cash-payment kiosks spread across the Bay Area and into nearby parts of the Central Valley, Fehler said.
Variety of plans
Rental agencies have their own plans, offered to consumers when they rent a car. But because each company has a single plan, renters have no choice. Some levy a daily fee — ranging from $2.95 to $6.95 a day, with a weekly or monthly maximum — plus the cost of the tolls. Others use an all-inclusive plan charging $9.95 a day, with a maximum of $39.95 a week.
Some companies charge the fee for each day of the rental — whether or not a bridge is crossed — while others charge only on days the toll pass is used. Still other plans start daily charges after the pass is used once. Plans also have different procedures for opting into the plan with some requiring renters to open a box containing a transponder, some being turned on at the rental counter and others being activated automatically.
Sharon Faulkner, executive director of the American Car Rental Association, agrees it’s confusing but said the varying plans fit the needs of companies trying to deal with a plethora of agencies that collect and process tolls on highways and bridges across the country in different ways.
“We wish there was an industry standard,” she said. “It’s a mess.”
Faulkner said the toll program developed as a need to keep car rental companies from being flooded with thousands of toll bills a day. She defended the service charges as necessary and reasonable.
“There is a cost involved to provide the service,” she said.
So what happens to the car renter who simply zips across the Golden Gate Bridge, sans transponder, and doesn’t bother to pay within two days? It depends on the company, but typically, they’ll receive a bill for the toll — plus a fee of $10 to $15.
Lisa Martini, a spokeswoman for Enterprise Holdings, which owns Enterprise, National and Alamo, said that before it enlisted in the TollPass tolling program, a private, fee-based operation that handles tolls for car renters, the companies received a separate mailed notice or citation for each toll, requiring them to deal with each renter over each charge.
Customers renting in the Bay Area are notified when they make reservations, or at the counter, that they can either pay Golden Gate tolls in advance, once they know the license plate number of their rental car, or have their credit cards automatically charged through the tolling program, with a “convenience charge” of $3.95 per day or a maximum of $19.75 for the rental period.
“We simply communicate this option to our customers and let the customer make the decision about what is most convenient if they decide to cross the Golden Gate Bridge,” she said.
‘A lot of complaints’
The group that owns Hertz, Dollar and Thrifty offers renters the choice of using its PlatePass program, which charges $4.95 a day, with a cap of $24.75 for the rental period, plus the tolls.
“The product is particularly convenient for rental car customers who do not live in tolling regions and are unfamiliar with an area’s toll roads,” said Anna Bootenhoff, a spokeswoman for Hertz Corp. “PlatePass alleviates the worry of being fined or billed later.”
But not everyone is satisfied, Goodwin said. Some customers complain of heavy-handed sales tactics or misrepresentation of toll policies or general confusion about how to pay tolls at a bridge without toll collectors.
“We get a lot of complaints,” he said. “It’s not so much confusion about the absence of toll collectors, not even so much about electronic toll payment generally. As it is, most of the complaints are about the obscure or allegedly deceptive practices of rental car companies and that not everybody plays the game the same way.”
Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @ctuan
Rental car drivers and others who cross the Golden Gate Bridge without a FasTrak transponder who want to avoid getting a bill in the mail, or incurring a service charge from rental car companies, can pay their $7 tolls before crossing the bridge. They have three choices:
Pay online using a credit card: www.bayareafastrak.org.
Pay by phone using a credit card: (877) 229-8655 in state; (415) 486-8655 outside state.
Visit a FasTrak cash payment location: http://tinyurl.com/q7yz343.
For more information on rental car toll programs at the Golden Gate Bridge, visit: http://goldengate.org/tolls/rentaltollprograms.php.
Source: Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District