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Self Service Tanks, but Theres Still Efficiency

Proposals range from $100 for new car-poolers to hybrids in reserved lanesSTATEHOUSE – Under pressure from legislators who pledged opposition and constituents who like getting a fill-up without leaving their cars, Gov. Jon Corzine last week stopped pushing a pilot program that would have legalized self-service stations in the state for the first time in more than 50 years.

“This is not a fight that you want to take to the death,” he said.

But Corzine is still urging a slew of initiatives designed to make New Jerseyans’ trips to the gas station less frequent. He has proposed handing out $100 gas cards to new car-poolers, a program slated to begin soon; allowing hybrid vehicles to use the Turnpike’s high-occupancy lanes that are otherwise reserved for vehicles carrying three or more people; and promoting NJ Transit’s offer of 26,000 free round-trip train tickets that monthly ticket holders may share with others.

“This administration is continuing to take action to ease the pressure on working families and keep our state moving,” Corzine said.

Corzine also reiterated an initiative from his proposed state budget: a one-time 0.4% surcharge on the purchase price of vehicles that average less than 19 miles per gallon. The cost would average about $200 a car, the governor has said.

Corzine said he would do his part by asking his security staff to replace the SUV he travels in with a more fuel-efficient vehicle.

Still, the most visible subject last week was self-serve gas: The governor gave up on exploring whether self service could save drivers 3¢ to 6¢ per gallon, as he said some reports have suggested.

The week before he had proposed allowing gas stations along the New Jersey Turnpike and some other areas to provide self service for three months. If prices dropped, he said the state could consider legalizing self service statewide, as 48 other states have done.

Lawmakers from both parties, who would have had to approve the change, immediately criticized the plan. They said self service would make driving harder for senior citizens and the disabled without making it less expensive.

“The cost of crude oil is $75 a barrel,” said Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D-Union). “How do you change that with self service?”

Critics said the benefits of self serve would flow primarily to large gas stations, generally owned by oil companies, that could keep more pumps open while reducing headcount.

By giving oil companies a “license to cut overhead and layoff hundreds of employees, they will be able to put more money in their own pockets,” said Senator Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex).

The New Jersey Petroleum Council, which represents large oil companies—including those that own gas-station chains—supported a move to self serve. “The cost savings would come from competition in the market,” said Jim Benton, executive director of the group.

But the New Jersey Gasoline Retailers Association, which represents mostly independent service-station owners, opposed the change and claimed it wouldn’t affect prices at the pump. “Gas stations’ [profit] margins are about 8¢ to 10¢ per gallon,” said Bill Dressler, executive director of the association, and that wouldn’t change.

He said his members would save little money by eliminating workers. “The independent gas-station owner that has three employees will still need to carry two employees,” Dressler said. “Maybe the large operators will have 10 people instead of 20 people.”

The state has 3,800 gas stations, about a quarter of which are chain-operated, Dressler said.

Senator Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen), the only legislator to support the self-service plan, said service stations launched a letter-writing and e-mail campaign that influenced lawmakers and the governor. The decision to drop the pilot program was “decided not on the merits, but on who yells the loudest,” Cardinale said.

“Allowing drivers to pump their own gas lowers the cost of doing business,” he said, “and competition between stations would lead to much of that savings being passed to the consumer.”

Further, self serve would lead to shorter lines at gas stations and less pollution from idling cars waiting in line, Cardinale said.

New Jersey and Oregon are the only states with a ban on self-serve gas; both were adopted more than 50 years ago over safety issues. But improvements in technology have made such concerns moot, Cardinale said.

For his part, the governor said he chooses to focus on higher priorities—including passing a state budget and taking on property tax reform—rather than get bogged down in a fight with the legislature for self serve. He admitted, however, that the 1,400 e-mail messages his office received on the subject—virtually all opposed—helped him decide to move on.

Treating an Oil Addiction

Gov. Jon Corzine has announced the following measures to make the state more

fuel efficient:

Increasing Mass Transit On the rail system, NJ Transit will be offering 26,000 free round-trip tickets to encourage new ridership. NJ Transit has added 160 bus trips on 46 routes across the system since January. Over the next several months, 101 more trips will be added on 31 routes.

Car-pooling The state will give $100 debit cards for gas to commuters that register for car pools. The New Jersey Department of Transportation is setting aside $500,000 for the program. In addition, NJDOT will staff a toll-free hotline that can match-up motorists for ridesharing.

Incentives for fuel-efficient cars The New Jersey Turnpike Authority will allow hybrid vehicles to travel in the Turnpike’s High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes reserved for vehicles with three or more people during rush hours. HOV lanes are located on the Turnpike between Interchange 11 in Woodbridge and Interchange 14 in Newark. Corzine has proposed a 0.4% surcharge on the purchase price of vehicles that average less than 19 miles per gallon.

Creating a director of energy savings The director, yet to be named, will design and implement a program to increase efficiency, reduce usage and improve the procurement of energy for the hundreds of facilities owned by the state. Plans include energy audits, bulk purchasing of energy and increased use of Energy Star-compliant products.

E-mail to sgoldstein@njbiz.com

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