Gas tax hike goes in effect in New Jersey

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Stephanie Reed of Conshohocken said the cost of her 100-mile round-trip commute to work in Hamilton, N.J., would jump more than $5 a week.

Driving just got more expensive in New Jersey.

At 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, a 23-cent increase in the state gasoline tax went into effect, the first increase in 28 years.

The tax per gallon is now 37.5 cents, the sixth highest in the nation. The previous tax of 14.5 cents was the second lowest in the nation, behind Alaska's.

The increase is part of a deal between Gov. Christie and lawmakers that includes funding an eight-year, $16 billion Transportation Trust Fund and cuts to the estate and sales taxes.

"Wow," said Maria Holmes of Maryland when she saw the $2.31 per gallon she was paying for regular at the Sunoco station at the James Fenimore Cooper rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike in Mount Laurel.

Just a few months ago, when she was visiting her ill sister, the price was much lower. Tuesday, on her way to the sister's funeral in Manhattan, Holmes was surprised by the steep increase.

Stephanie Reed of Conshohocken had a different concern filling up at the Sunoco. She commutes to her job in Hamilton, N.J., about 100 miles round-trip, so the cost of going to work, she said, would jump by more than $5 a week.

"I'm not happy about the 23-cent increase," said Reed, who has been buying gas in New Jersey.

At a Sunoco in Conshohocken, gas on Tuesday was $2.33 a gallon. "It's horrible," she said.

Not all customers realized that the increase was caused by politicians, not station owners.

Naveed Shah, manager of US Petroleum on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, said customers who noticed the increase had been yelling at him throughout the day.

"People are not happy," Shah said.

There was a rush to buy gas Monday. He had fewer than half the usual number of customers Tuesday. On Monday, he sold 8,000 gallons at $1.89. On Tuesday, by 1 p.m., he had sold fewer than 1,000 gallons at $2.09.

Cathleen Lewis, director of public affairs and government relations for AAA Northeast, said the tax increase is good for New Jersey residents. The tax, she said, will be used for safety and improvements, specifically for smaller roads where potholes can lead to expensive repairs.

On average, Lewis said, motorists pay $600 a year for road-hazard repairs, such as new tires and alignment. The tax, she said, was designed to improve road maintenance and expansion, typically covered by municipalities and counties.

The tax also will be used for mass transit. Lewis said all the improvements would mean safer roads that would cut down on repair bills. And, she added, all motorists passing through the state now contribute more toward maintenance, reducing costs to New Jersey residents.

Next week, New Jersey voters are to decide on a constitutional amendment that would dedicate all gas tax revenues to transportation projects. If it passes, the amendment will guarantee money is not diverted from the Transportation Trust Fund, which was created 30 years ago. In the past, money has been diverted for projects unrelated to transportation.

But the rise in prices on Tuesday caused consumers to see an immediate impact on their wallets.

Mike Spearman of Sicklerville paid $41 Tuesday to fill his Kia Optima at the Mount Ephraim BP station on the Black Horse Pike. His daily round-trip commute to Swedesboro is 66 miles.

The cash price for regular at the BP was $2.35 Tuesday.

"That's ridiculous," Spearman said of the increase, which he said means he must cut other purchases. "It's a lot more out of my budget for gas."

At the Bellmawr Shell station on the Black Horse Pike, manager Aman Singh said business was down 35 percent to 45 percent. Gas was $2.22 cash Tuesday compared with $1.99 Monday.

"Today, business is dead," Singh said. On Monday, customers rushed to the pumps, some filling up twice after running errands, said Singh. He said that in addition to the 23-cent hike, the market price of oil is expected to go up, which means a possible additional 12-cent increase this week.

The price increases will cause a loss of Pennsylvania customers who often come to New Jersey to shop. Lower gas sales means fewer sales in the food mart, he said.

"If nobody comes outside, than no one comes inside," Singh said. "Philly, they're done. They won't come over to buy gas in New Jersey unless they are already on this side for something else, like visiting family."

At a Northeast Philadelphia Shell station, gas was $2.23 on Tuesday, one cent more than in Bellmawr.

Philadelphia residents, he said, often were willing to pay the $5 bridge toll to shop in New Jersey and then fill their tanks before returning home. Fewer will be doing that without the gas savings.

Eventually, Singh said, truckers also may skip filling up in New Jersey, once a tax increase on diesel fuel is phased in through 2017, which could make diesel - like gas now - cheaper in Delaware. A single truck is a $300 to $400 sale, Singh said.

"If they can, the truckers are going to fuel up in Delaware," Singh said, adding that he believes New Jersey's gas tax increase was shortsighted. "Four to five years down the road, we're still going to have the same problems."

Correction: This story and a photo caption were revised to reflect that Stephanie Reed's weekly gas cost would increase by more than $5, not $50.

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