Rent a car. Cheat on bridge tolls.

About 120,000 times a year, rental car users sail over seven state-owned bridges in the Bay Area without paying the $4 toll — mostly by driving through the tollbooth in FasTrak lanes without carrying a transponder to pay tolls electronically.

Now, the loophole is about to close.

The Bay Area Toll Authority Oversight Committee agreed Wednesday to contract with the PlatePass network to pay tolls automatically for each Hertz, Avis and Budget rental car that crosses a bridge without paying.

PlatePass will then recover the $4 toll — plus a $1.50 or $2.50 fee — from the car rental companies, which recoup the money by charging the car renter when the bill is settled.

"We think this is an effective way to increase our toll collection rate," said Rod McMillan, the toll authority's director of bridge oversight and operations.

The new arrangement will boost toll revenues, and save public money spent trying to track down and collect from toll scofflaws. "We collect our money eventually in many cases, but it's a cumbersome process that involves notifying both the car rental company and their customer," McMillan said. "This way, we get our money upfront."

Toll evasion is an especially touchy issue these days because the toll authority has proposed raising tolls from $4 to $5 to pay for seismic retrofits of the Antioch and Dumbarton bridges. In other states, PlatePass has similar deals with toll agencies to pay tolls for rental cars that use express lanes.

Rental car users can exploit the current system in the Bay Area by driving by tollbooths in lanes meant for FasTrak users with transponders.

FasTrak scofflaws who own their cars are easier to track down and bill. The toll agency snaps pictures of vehicle license plates, and then sends a bill to the address of the registered owners. Car owners who don't pay can have their vehicle registration renewal held up.

But rental car users are harder to track. Under current practices, the toll collection agency has to send one letter to the rental car company to get contact information about the renter, and then mail a second letter to the car user. The new system shifts the payment burden to PassPlate and the car rental companies.

PassPlate will provide the Bay Area toll agency a huge computer database with license plates of all the rental cars in Hertz, Avis and Budget fleets. When one their cars whizzes through the FasTrak lane at tollbooths, the toll agency will identify the car and deduct $4 from a PlatePass account.

McMillan said the toll authority anticipates striking a similar deal with another company that can collect tolls automatically for other rental cars in the Bay Area. "People in rental cars can still pay by cash or with FasTrak if they want," he said. "This gives them a choice.

Reach Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267 or dcuff@bayareanewsgroup.com.