The push to bring the Jersey blue license plates back to the parkway and the turnpike, to circles and jughandles from Cape May to High Point, is gaining some … traction.
With no fanfare or discussion, the Senate Transportation Committee on Monday unanimously passed a bill that was introduced last year to revive the old plates that the state exclusively used from 1979 to 1992.
The bill must go through an Assembly committee and get approved in a full vote in both chambers before heading to Gov. Phil Murphy for consideration, but its advancement this week gives hope to anyone pining for the old plates — or, at least, a dose of nostalgia while sitting in traffic.
“I think we need something new and exciting. Even if it’s not that exciting, it’s at least new,” said Jim Moini, a computer programmer from Bergenfield who runs a website, njplates.moini.net, dedicated to the history and intricacies, such as they are, of New Jersey license plates.
Three decades, same color
New Jersey hasn’t had a new plate design in nearly 30 years, when the state rolled out the current Goldfinch yellow plates with black lettering in 1992.
Compared with other states’ designs since then — they include a trippy mural in Oklahoma, a portrait of Dolly Parton in Tennessee and a tribute to fossil fuels in West Virginia — New Jersey’s tags have been among the “plainest,” as Moini put it.
“New Jersey’s uniqueness comes from that darn yellow color and ‘Garden State’ ” printed at the bottom, he said. “That’s all we’ve got. That’s why if they offer it as an alternative passenger plate I’d put the blue ones on my car.”
New Jersey does offer a variety of “dedicated” plates with logos for places such as the Meadowlands and Battleship New Jersey, but there’s a reason its tags are largely free of flourishes.
On Dec. 8, 1989, Gov. Tom Kean signed a law creating the Reflectorized License Plate Selection Commission, which was charged with creating a new color scheme and design that was reflectorized “while considering the needs of law enforcement and highway safety, aesthetics, cost, and the ability of the corrections system to produce the new plate.”
The purpose of the change was to have a sharp contrast between the background and letters on the plates “to increase their nighttime visibility and legibility,” according to a commission memo.
The five-member commission agreed that white was the best background for light and reflection, but too many other states at the time had that color. The “next best choice” was yellow — Goldfinch yellow, to be precise, as a nod to the state bird.
But the plates on the road today could have been much different, and even changed the course of travel and shopping for vanity name plate trinkets as we know it.
A long history
At a public hearing in 1990, then-Assemblyman D. Bennett Mazur submitted samples of a plate with a sky-blue background, a white seagull in the center, blue or black letters and numbers, and the words “Seashore State” at the bottom instead of “Garden State.”
The rationale of the Bergen County lawmaker suggesting a Shore-centric design, the commission said, was that the plate should advertise an “attractive feature” that promotes the state.
The commission rejected it, saying Mazur’s design was distracting and prevented “quick and accurate identification of the vehicle.” The commission also considered yellow backgrounds with green and blue letters and numbers.
After several hearings and some not-so-scientific field tests that consisted of commission members shining car headlights into the plate samples at night, the panel selected a tag design it called “superior” and which is ubiquitous today.
That’s the Goldfinch yellow fading to pale yellow background, black letters and numbers, “New Jersey” on top, “Garden State” on the bottom, and a little New Jersey icon in the middle.
That design is also similar to the one New Jersey used from 1959 to 1979 — until the Jersey blue background and buff letters and numbers became standard issue.
The old straw or blue plates can still be spotted today because New Jersey allows them to be transferred, unlike many other states that require old tags to be turned in when new ones are issued.
Next steps for the blue plates
Bringing back the blue plates still has a ways to go, if it happens at all.
The office of Assemblyman Dan Benson, chairman of the Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee, did not respond to a message seeking comment on whether the bill will be voted on in his committee, a step that is required before going for a full vote.
And should it pass and be signed by Murphy, the bill requires at least 500 orders — and a $50 fee for each application — to take effect.
It could be a short-lived resurrection, too. The chief administrator of the Motor Vehicle Commission may stop issuing the plates if the average cost exceeds $50 in two straight years.
It’s unknown what kind of demand there may be for the blue plates, but one of the bill’s sponsors, Republican Sen. Kristin Corrado, said in a statement that “many New Jerseyans, especially classic car enthusiasts, favor the vintage license plate design that gained popularity in the ‘80s.”
Joel Keller, a journalist and television critic who lives in Somerset County, said he could see enthusiasm among a certain type of driver.
“I get the idea: You bought a 1985 Camaro IROC-Z and you want it to look the way it did in 1985,” he said.
In 2004, Keller wrote a paean in The New York Times to Jersey’s blue license plates, about 12 years after they stopped being issued. He’d transferred his to several vehicles over the years and, he wrote, would get “doe-eyed” seeing the blue plates because “they remind me of an era that has passed.”
But lots has changed since then.
Keller, 50, gave up his blue plates for the yellow ones in 2014, just as he and his wife were about to start a family. It represented a life transition, he said.
As wistful as he was about the bygone era of Jersey blue plates, he’d surely shell out $50, plus the $10 annual renewal fee, to get them back, wouldn’t he?
“No, probably not,” Keller said.
“I like that the option’s there,” he added, “but at the end of the day, it’s a license plate.”
Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to his work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Email: [email protected]