Bruce Springsteen. Jughandles. The Taylor ham/pork roll debate.
Certain things are woven into the fabric of New Jersey’s identity and topping that list is the state’s steadfast refusal to pump its own gas.
For 73 years — as almost every other state in the Union saw drivers emerge from their cars to fill up the tank — New Jerseyans have been told to sit tight, thanks to a law requiring all gas stations have attendants manning the pumps. So it may be surprising to few that the latest effort to introduce some self-service pumps to the Garden State has run into a serious speed bump as an overwhelming majority of New Jersey residents said they would prefer to keep to tradition.
New Jersey is the only state in the U.S. that completely bars self-service gasoline pumps, after Oregon rolled back its own restrictions in rural areas in 2015. But amid the recent spike in gas prices due in part to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some state legislators said it’s time to revisit what they called an outdated law.
In early March, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers introduced a bill that would allow gas station owners to operate some self-service pumps in the latest attempt to roll back the law.
“It’s really simple,” said State Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “We are giving consumers an option, nothing more, nothing less.”
It's a move that's popular with gas station owners like John Choi, who co-owns a Shell station in Jersey City near the Holland Tunnel. He said making some of his pumps self-service would allow him to cut his staff from eight employees to six, potentially passing off the savings onto consumers.
“It would allow us to reduce expenses and possibly lower prices to the public,” Choi told Gothamist.
That’s the same argument the bill’s supporters – gas station owners and industry lobbyists – have made in favor of bucking Garden State tradition. But attendants argue cutting their jobs would lead to chaos at the pump.
Raymond Perez, 52, works at a Sonoco down the block from Choi’s station. He’s been a gas station attendant for 11 years and thinks the potential savings to station owners would pale before losses from angry customers trying to figure out how to work the pumps while in a rush.
“Attendant help is good,” Perez said. “When some gas stations [don’t have an] attendant guy, I think it’s a lot of problems. A lot of messed up computers, you know?”
Murphy estimated that cutting those gas station attendant jobs could potentially wind up saving drivers about 15 cents per gallon of gas. But some researchers who have followed the repeated attempts to let New Jerseyans pump their own gas said there’s no evidence backing up those claims.
“Every study that's been done about this issue finds again and again that self-service would not save money and requiring employees to pump your gas really doesn't cost you anything more than maybe two cents on the gallon,” Peter Woolley, director of the School of Public and Global Affairs at Fairleigh Dickinson University, told Gothamist. “The idea that there’s a price advantage to be had is simply not true.”
State residents have also made it clear that they want to keep their full-service pumps.
Let's say you're going to a wedding or something and you have your nice suit on — so you gotta be real careful
“Let's say you're going to a wedding or something and you have your nice suit on — so you gotta be real careful,” said Montclair resident Earl Eden, 62. “It's happened to me that I was going to a wedding and I had to stop and get gas and I'm like 'Oh boy.'”
In fact, Dr. Ashley Koning, the director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, was finishing up conducting a poll on that very topic when the bill was introduced. She found that 73 percent of respondents would rather stick with full-service gas.
“We joke that Jersey girls pump their fist, but not their gas,” Koning said. “It's been a longstanding tradition in the state, and it's been kind of a third rail of politics whenever the issue has been approached. It's one of those last bastions of something that we have in New Jersey that we don't want to be taken away.”
So far, that has once again played out in the bill’s reception, as legislative leaders shied away from questions about their opinions on whether to introduce self-service pumps to the state. Gov. Phil Murphy was noncommittal when asked about the bill, while state Senate President Nicholas Scutari told the New Jersey Monitor he outright opposed the proposal, effectively scuttling the bill’s chances of getting out of committee.
Still, Assemblywoman Murphy (no relation to the governor) insisted there’s still gas in the tank, suggesting there are still carve-outs for other fuels.
“You can self-serve your own diesel gas,” she told Gothamist. “You know, that is not prohibited in New Jersey. Charging stations, you know, no one's standing there charging up your vehicle. You can do it yourself.”
She said she planned to try to move the bill forward in the fall.
Koning said that framing the bill as adding choices for drivers could help it finally gain public support, even if it might be an uphill climb.
“It's the same thing as if we ask something like ‘Bon Jovi versus Springsteen,’” Koning said. “You might prefer one of them, but you're certainly not going to decline a free ticket to the other concert.”