Road Warrior: No more long, long motor vehicle lines?

John Cichowski, The Record

"Really?!"

Totowa's Ray Galvano could hardly believe it Tuesday when he saw there was no line outside the old Motor Vehicle Commission office in Wayne, a pleasant surprise that allowed him to get a new auto registration and title in barely 30 minutes.

"Usually, it takes me 2 or 2½ hours," said the unemployed taxi driver. "What's going on?"

On Monday, another Ray — Martinez (the one who runs the MVC) — explained it all to the skeptics on the New Jersey Assembly Transportation Committee at a hearing in Trenton: Technology upgrades, mobile vans and building expansions, like the one that's already started in Wayne, are among the strategies designed to "ameliorate" the chronic waits that have plagued New Jersey motorists since they began driving as teens, said the agency's chief administrator.

“Sounds terrific," said Committee Vice Chairwoman Valerie Vanieri Huttle, with a weary trace of "we've-heard-this-song-before" in her voice. "That doesn’t translate to a lot of satisfaction for our constituents,” added the Englewood Democrat.

Few of life’s little annoyances rile up motorists like Galvano and Huttle more than the chronic, ring-around-the-building lines that they've become accustomed to since they first got their licenses as teens in the 1970s. Like Huttle, committee Chairman John Wisniewski also reacted a bit skeptically to Martinez's claims.

The Middlesex Democrat, a licensed driver since 1979, has a long enough memory to recall the MVC chief's promise at a similar hearing in 2011, when he predicted that the state-owned mainframe computers that keep track of the agency's 60,000 driver's licenses and 17,000 auto registrations each month would be rebuilt and expanded. That never happened, but Wisniewski was relieved back then because, as he said Monday, lawmakers have been making suggestions for improving the MVC's systems for decades, only to be told each time that “the computers can’t handle it.”

But Martinez, who headed the New York Department of Motor Vehicles in the 1990s, came well-prepared to the Trenton State House hearing this time.

A former White House and United Nations official, he brought tracking charts with him to back up his claim that long lines in crowded offices had shrunk significantly in only a matter of months. One chart showing waiting times at MVC offices in North Jersey, including the aging building in Wayne and the spanking-new one in Lodi, proclaimed a 43 percent average reduction, from 53 minutes this summer to 30 minutes so far in the fall.

“There will be no big waits next summer,” asserted the MVC chief, who also got his first driver’s license in the 1970s.

How had Martinez pulled off this near-miracle?

He rattled off a list of reforms, which he called his “Transformation Project”:

  • A Skip the Trip initiative that cut office visits for license renewal nearly in half for all 6 million New Jersey licensees except those with commercial licenses or motorboat endorsements.
  • Improved employee scheduling and expanded hours of operation, which, at 54.5 hours weekly, represents the most in the nation.
  • An intense employee customer-service training program.
  • Eliminating fees for online auto registrations.
  • Personnel realignments that shifted employees out of the main Trenton office to accommodate needs in the MVC’s 39 offices.
  • Renovations at five local offices, including North Bergen and Oakland.
  • Integrating a flexible state-run, cloud-based computer system with the appropriate security features of the state's old, trouble-plagued, vendor-operated mainframe system.

Like New Jersey, eight other states have been unsuccessful in getting vendors to update their mainframe systems, said Martinez. Causes were usually attributed to the fast pace of changing technology and mandated federal procedural reforms that couldn’t be accommodated by the old system.

“In many cases, you couldn’t find personnel that were trained” to maintain the old system, he explained.

Under the more flexible current system, he said, downtime has been minimized, although under questioning, he conceded that some flaws still remain in other parts of the MVC's operation. In several trucking categories, for example, applicants who try to renew their commercial driver’s licenses must wait two months or more to take qualifying tests. The main reason, he said, was a federally mandated tightening of the CDL tests administered by state motor-vehicle agencies.

“Drivers keep flunking,” he noted, at a rate that once approached 90 percent. As a result, retesting had added substantially to overall delays.

By getting federal authorities to allow drivers to retest only for the portions of their tests that they flunked, the failure rate has dipped to 51 percent, said Martinez. “But I don’t think we’re going to see the old 31 percent failure rate” return for some time, he added.

Despite these challenges, he insisted that reforms planned for next year should continue to reduce lines at all 39 offices. Plans include:

  • Nearly doubling the size of the Wayne MVC office, a project now under way on Route 46, and expanding offices in Bayonne and Edison.
  • Adding two mobile vans to accommodate those who have difficulty reaching a local office, such as disaster victims and senior citizens.
  • Eliminating end-of-the-month crowding by shifting monthly license-renewal deadlines to drivers’ individual birthdays.
  • Allowing customers to schedule their visits instead of waiting in line.

Noting that his agency's "positive experiences are not talked about as much as the negative ones,” Martinez asked lawmakers to give him “the time to allow the Transformation Project to continue to deliver positive results.”

Committee members seemed willing to cut him some slack. In reviewing the last five years, the chairman noted that, despite the MVC’s independent status, its ability to mandate serious change was highly limited by the constraints of changing technology and bureaucratic policies beyond its control.

But in Wayne on Tuesday, MVC customers like Kayla Elias of Haledon weren't forced to stand on the same kind of cold December line that generations before her had endured just to take a driving test.

"I thought I'd be here for two hours, but it took me only about an hour," said the 17-year-old Manchester High School senior. "Now I can do some more Christmas shopping."