AmEx Makes Toll-Paying Easier

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American Express, New York, is leveraging commuter frustration with long, sluggish toll lines into people charging more on their AmEx cards.

The travel, financial and network services giant is using a direct mail campaign to persuade cardholders in seven geographical target regions to pay tolls using an automatic payment option with their AmEx cards. The company partnered with seven state highway authorities, which are providing the technology necessary to carry out the program.

The mail pieces bear a picture of a single car whisking through a toll booth while surrounding vehicles sit in exact change lanes. The mailing encourages respondents to get in touch with their local tollway authorities and provides the contact information. Bronner Slosberg Humphrey, Boston, the company's agency of record for direct mail, designed the mailings.

Though similar in design from region to region, the mailings varied in the mode of customer response they use. Some toll authorities process customer information directly over the telephone using toll-free numbers, while others mail forms for respondents to fill out. Internet applications are available for some of the regions AmEx is targeting.

Participating transportation authorities include the North Texas Tollway Authority, around Dallas; the Orlando Expressway; the Illinois State Tollway, in Chicago and outlying areas; the Virginia Department of Transportation, around Richmond; Harris County Toll Authority, in the Houston area; and two tollways in Orange County, CA.

All of the participating tollways are paying AmEx an undisclosed discount rate -- the fee merchants pay to the company when goods or services are purchased at their locations. Some of the tolls are run directly by the government agency that oversees them, while others are run by private operators that have contracts with the states.

"It's a new channel of charge volume that we would not have had before, a new area where we are able to capture charges that we wouldn't have been able to before," said AmEx spokeswoman Judy Tenzer, who added that the company doesn't divulge revenue projections or the volume of charges it is receiving through a particular program.

Cardmembers who are enrolled in American Express' Membership Rewards program will receive 1,000 bonus points if they sign up for the toll payment plan before Dec. 31. Membership Reward points can be redeemed for frequent-flier miles with Delta Air Lines, US Airways, Continental, TWA and other carriers, or turned in for gift certificates at retailers, including the Gap, Saks Fifth Avenue, J. Crew and Filene's Basement.

AmEx targeted Membership Rewards cardholders in participating areas. Company officials wouldn't release budget information on mailings, but Tenzer said response to the campaign has been "very good."

To join the program, respondents must receive a transponder -- a box device slightly larger than a business card and similar to the EZ Pass system used in some states. These transponders are attached to the back of their interior rear-view mirror. Special sensor-equipped lanes at the toll stations detect the transponders and let the cars pass, and each trip is recorded and billed automatically to the driver's charge card and indicated on his monthly statement.

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