A brief but intense push to change a law that forbids self-service gas stations stalled before it even revved up.
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Sabrina Banks, an 18-year-old college freshman, has never pumped her own gasoline. Growing up in New Jersey, she never had to.
“I don’t even know how,” Ms. Banks said with a quick laugh before heading into a Bed Bath & Beyond store in Brick, N.J.
For now, she need not learn: A brief but intense push to abolish a law that bars drivers in New Jersey from pumping their own fuel at gas stations has hit a speed bump, if not a complete dead-end.
Nicholas Scutari, the Democratic president of the State Senate whose backing would be crucial to any law change, put an end to speculation earlier this month when he said he did not support changing the state’s unique policy.
New Jersey is the only state in the country that requires attendants to pump gas for all customers, a law that has been in place for 73 years and that a majority of residents have repeatedly told pollsters they support. The idiosyncrasy is often worn as a badge of honor on T-shirts and bumper stickers that proudly proclaim “Jersey Girls Don’t Pump Gas.”
Earlier this month, proponents of self-service gas reintroduced a bill that would permit drivers to pump their own fuel, an effort backed by a gas station industry group that resurfaces regularly. Widely seen as a third rail for politicians, the proposal has never gone far.
But proponents of the legislation, who have framed it as an issue of driver choice at a time when most major grocery and retail stores offer self-service checkout options, said they believed that a confluence of circumstances had given it better odds.
Gas prices are high, making the promise of even pennies in savings more potent. Workers have become harder to find during the pandemic, a shortage that station owners say forces them to regularly close down fuel pumps. And the governor, in a televised news conference, suggested a new openness to the proposal as a way of making New Jersey more affordable.
“It’s ridiculous that we actually go out of our way to prohibit something that virtually all the rest of the world allows,” said State Senator Declan O’Scanlon Jr., a Republican from Monmouth County and a longtime supporter of self-service gasoline.
Voters — especially Democrats — appear to disagree. A recent Rutgers Eagleton poll found that 73 percent of people surveyed said they preferred having someone else pump their gas. Roughly 82 percent of Democrats preferred full-service, compared with 64 percent of Republicans. And nearly 90 percent of women said they would rather have an attendant pump their gas, compared with 55 percent of men, the poll found.
The bill would require owners of stations with more than four pumps to offer a full-service option between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. It was introduced in the Assembly, but is unlikely to advance in the Senate without Mr. Scutari’s support.
“The people of New Jersey are very clear in wanting to keep the system we have now,” Mr. Scutari said in a policy position first reported by the New Jersey Monitor. He also said he was not convinced that the addition of self-service lanes would lead to lower gas prices.
Still, he did leave open a small window of hope for supporters of self-service gasoline. “If the public sentiment changes or there is in fact data showing that it would dramatically reduce costs,” Mr. Scutari said in a text message, “I would reconsider.”
In 2016, a former Republican governor, Chris Christie, offered a similar argument for not supporting self-service gas.
“The last poll we did on this question, 78 percent of New Jersey women said they were opposed to self-service gas. Seventy-eight percent!” he reportedly said at the time. “You can’t find 78 percent of people in New Jersey who agree on anything!”
Three years later, Gov. Philip D. Murphy similarly demurred.
“I will not commit political suicide this morning in East Orange,” the governor said in 2019 when asked about self-service gas.
But when asked about the proposed legislation earlier this month, he did not rule out authorizing a self-service gas option, although he remained noncommittal.
“I’m not necessarily signing up for that, because I need to understand what impact it would have,” Mr. Murphy said.
In 2016, the price of gas in New Jersey was the second lowest in the country, hovering close to $2 a gallon. That year, Mr. Christie signed a law that raised the gas tax by 23 cents a gallon. The extra fee paid for the elimination of the state’s tax on large estates, cut the sales tax slightly and created a formula-driven funding stream for transportation projects that has led to additional increases, and one decrease, in the gas tax.
The state tax on gasoline is now 42.4 cents a gallon, and there has been little discussion about temporarily suspending the charge, as several other states have done to offset the recent price spike.
On Wednesday, the average price of a gallon of gas in New Jersey was $4.20, three cents less than the nationwide average of $4.23 and roughly 14 cents less than in New York, according to the American Automotive Association.
Sal Risalvato, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline, C-Store and Automotive Association, a trade group, said he believed allowing self-service gasoline would lower overhead costs, increase sales and drive down prices.
Perhaps more important, he said, it would alleviate the hiring challenges now facing gas stations. A self-service option would enable station owners to keep all pumps open, rather than block off lanes when there are not enough employees, a problem that can lead to longer lines for gas, he said.
“Orange cones blocking pumps in the last two years — it’s not new, it’s just become more commonplace,” Mr. Risalvato said.
The 1949 statute barring self-service in New Jersey dates to a time when the practice was rare and the justification for entrusting only station attendants to pump gas was safety. Since then, every other state except Oregon has adopted liberal use of self-service gas lanes. (Oregon stipulates that attendants at many gas stations must pump fuel for drivers, but carves out an exception for rural counties with fewer than 40,000 residents.)
In New Jersey, the 1949 statute that Mr. Risalvato is trying to overturn actually grew out of a lobbying effort by the same group he now leads.
The owner of a gas station in Hackensack, N.J., got upset when a competitor, deviating from the custom of the day, began allowing drivers to pump their own gas. This enabled the station to sell gas for less than the 22 cents a gallon competitors were charging, Mr. Risalvato said.
“All of the competing gas stations were up in arms, saying, ‘Hey, he’s going to steal all our customers,’” Mr. Risalvato said.
Levent Sertbas owns three family-run Exxon stations in Bergen County, N.J. His wife, daughters and brother often work at the stations, but he said he was desperate for additional employees. He said he could hire three people on the spot if anyone showed up to apply for the jobs that pay $14 an hour.
“Everybody is looking for employees now,” said Mr. Sertbas, 54. “This is something that people don’t want to do anymore. They’ve got to work outside, deal with the environment — hot, cold.
“How am I going to compete with Amazon or Target?” he said. “There’s no way.”
When he is short-staffed, he shuts down certain pumps to make the work more manageable for a single employee. Frustrated drivers regularly climb out of their cars, he said, to remove the nozzle from their filled tanks rather than wait for an employee attending to another car.
Three times in the last year, he said he had to close a station altogether for several hours because of staff shortages.
“If I close, I’m not making money,” Mr. Sertbas said, who also operates convenience stores next to the filling stations. “And if you’re not coming into the station, you don’t come into the store either.”