TRENTON, N.J. — Some New Jerseyans have been wondering whether it is time that they were allowed to pump their own gasoline, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Motorists pumping their own gasoline is illegal in New Jersey. It has been for 61 years. It is also illegal in Oregon, and in the New York town of Huntington, on Long Island, said the report.
Yet the rhythms of full-service try the patience of the state’s newest station owners, it said. Big oil is getting out of the pumping game, selling to people who forsake the repair shop for the convenience store and the high-volume pump island. The gasoline retailing lobby, once the force behind full-service, has split, the report said. Its association has given up praising the old filling station’s homey virtues. Its least nostalgic members, meanwhile, are making the case for the “gas jockey’s” demise.
Bikram Gill and his partners have bought up 26 New Jersey stations. They don’t fix cars; they sell cappuccino. Their burden is finding workers to push the buttons on their self-service pumps. “Any idiot can do it,” Gill told the newspaper.
If that category includes New Jersey drivers, Gill figures that self-service would let him cut prices by eight cents a gallon. But according to the Journal, New Jersey drivers do not necessarily want cheaper gasoline, which is cheap there already, it said.
Oregonians at least know they are paying dearly for their perk. But New Jersey has the country’s third-lowest gasoline tax, said the report, after Alaska and Wyoming. Prices are higher in the pump-your-own states next door.
Gill said, “The consumer is thinking, ‘I have low prices and I don’t have to get out of my car. New Jersey is heaven!’.”
A BP station he owns, a 12-pumper, has a busy corner in Matawan, N.J., One afternoon, the report said, a line of cars awaited the attention of two attendants. Harish Sharma and Jagdeep Singh were working without banter for $9 an hour. Drivers phoned and texted. A few got out to use the ATM.
In 1949, the year New Jersey banned them, America had 200 self-service gas stations; 13 other states had banned them, too. (Portsmouth, Va., banned attendants on roller skates.) The fear was that unprofessional pumpers would blow themselves up.
Calling the New Jersey law “oppressive,” two dealers sued. They lost. The state’s Supreme Court, upholding the verdict in 1951, declared gasoline inherently “dangerous in use.” In 1988, a judge in a lower court ruled the law unconstitutional. An appeals panel cited the 1951 case and reversed him. In 2006, then-Governor John Corzine took another shot at the law, proposing a self-service test on the New Jersey Turnpike. He wanted to watch prices drop, as cost-cutters like Gill say they will. The dealers’ lobby did not object. But the public did, said the Journal–so loudly that Corzine cancelled the test before it began.
“I wanted it guaranteed that the price will go down,” Pam Fischer, a former state highway-safety director, told the paper. “If the price doesn’t drop, what do I get? The chance to pump my own gas? I know how to do it. It stinks.”
In a state with a self-image sometimes in need of bolstering, full service may have attained the status of a cultural entitlement, the report speculated.