MARLTON, N.J. — To figure out New Jersey, head to the highway.
It's how state residents commute to New York City and Philadelphia. It's how Jerseyites go to the shore. For better or worse, it's part of the state's identity. The Garden State has no hometowns, goes the lame old joke — only highway exit numbers.
So when gas prices recently started climbing, Gov. Jon Corzine (D) suggested the state test self-service pumps to lower the cost of traveling.
The result was a near revolt.
In the days following Corzine's suggestion, his office was flooded with 1,400 e-mails and phone calls — the biggest and fastest response to an issue the governor has received since taking office in January. Nearly all were in opposition.
Sensing a political disaster, Corzine backed off less than a week after he floated the idea of testing self-service along the New Jersey Turnpike . New Jersey, together with Oregon, will remain the last two full-service states in the country.
"I'm not against a lot of things, but I don't want to pump my own gas. It's part of the Jersey identity. It's our thing," said Rose Maurice, who operates a tourism office at a turnpike rest stop.
To the rest of the country, New Jersey's opposition to self-service may seem outdated. But those who prefer having someone else pump gas say it makes common sense.
"Oil is different than any other business," said Bill Dressler, who heads the New Jersey Gasoline Retailers Association & Allied Trades . The group represents 2,200 of the 3,800 gas stations in the state, and its influence in Trenton is often cited as the reason lawmakers have resisted self-service since the state banned the practice in 1949.
While the governor's office estimates switching to self-service could save drivers six cents a gallon, Dessler said oil companies would lay off gas station attendants and pocket the difference.
Then there's the issue of safety. About 8.7 million residents live in the state and many of them, including more than one million senior citizens, have little experience in pumping gas. Assemblyman Francis L. Bodine (R) said this is one reason he's opposed to the idea. Plus, "If I'm dressed up, I don't want to get out and smell like a gas pump," said Bodine, who represents the Mount Laurel area near Philadelphia.
Eight hours of training is required of gas station attendants, Dressler said. Among their responsibilities are knowing which type of containers cannot store gasoline, such as glass. "It's a dangerous product and they are trained in the correct procedures," he said.
At a Lukoil station in Marlton, Tony Singh moves from car to car taking credit cards and filling up tanks. Singh has worked as a gas station attendant for more than five years, and he said Corzine's proposal sent chills through the industry.
"So many gas station workers are scared. In a store with four guys, three of them would lose their jobs" if the self-service proposal passed, he said. Under Corzine's plan, eight of the 12 rest areas along the turnpike would have been fitted with credit-card readers, Kris Kolluri , the state's transportation commissioner, told The New York Times.
The self-service idea was part of a larger transportation package that Corzine introduced on April 27. Some other ideas, which were far less controversial, included creating a director of energy savings and providing incentives for fuel-efficient cars.
Unlike many neighbors, New Jersey has not seen the worst of the recent spike in gasoline prices. On Friday afternoon, the average price of regular gas in New Jersey was $2.88. The average was $3.11 in New York, $3 in Connecticut and $2.96 in Pennsylvania, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA).
Dressler — and other foes of self-service, including AAA — argue the price of gasoline is kept low because of the presence of gas station attendants. Paying these workers cuts into the profits of big oil companies, who then avoid the state, allowing smaller companies such as Lukoil to remain competitive and keep prices down, they say.
That theory is not universal.
Jim Benton, executive director if the New Jersey Petroleum Council, said the self-service ban is depriving New Jersey residents of lower gas prices. The price isn't tied to competition, he said. It relates to the low state tax on motor oil, which is the third lowest in the nation at 14.5 cents on the gallon, Benton said.
"New Jersey residents think they are getting a bargain for full service, but the bargain is the low motor fuel tax. A dedicated attendant, with no other job than to pump gasoline, can be redirected to being a mechanic or working at a convenience store," Benton said.