MVA Administrator John T. Kuo

John T. Kuo, administrator of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, at the Glen Burnie MVA. According to state data, the Essex MVA is the slowest in the MVA system, but the agency is moving more transactions online. (Amy Davis / The Baltimore Sun / September 27, 2011)

Linda Barnes spends a good chunk of her life at the state Motor Vehicle Administration's office in Essex — far too much, in her view.

"I wait 21/2 hours sometimes. There are days when it's been three hours," said the auto title agent from Perry Hall.

Barnes' perception that the Essex MVA is particularly slow is validated by cold, hard statistics. According to data posted online under Gov. Martin O'Malley's StateStat program, that office is the slowest in the MVA system, with an average customer spending just over 40 minutes to wait in line and complete a transaction.

Change may be just over the horizon. The agency is moving more transactions online, including driver's license renewals. But for now, a trip to an MVA office is one of the most common face-to-face encounters Marylanders have with state government.

The MVA's own statistics, for the budget year that ended June 30, show a wide variation among offices, with branches in rural counties generally posting faster times than those in urban areas.

The Cumberland office is the state's fastest, getting customers through the line and out the door in just under 12 minutes on average.

That is lightning speed compared with the Baltimore region, where the quickest offices — the limited-service branch in Parkville and the headquarters in Glen Burnie — average just under 25 minutes. Turning in middling performances — between 25 and 35 minutes — are the Westminster, Annapolis and Bel Air offices.

The statewide average was about 25 1/2 minutes.

People who enjoy cooling their heels in government offices can savor the leisurely pace — more than 35 minutes — at the Baltimore office, which recently moved to the Hilltop Shopping Center on Reisterstown Road, or at the dubiously named Columbia Express office.

But Essex, the only full-service office in Baltimore County, is the only local branch to break the 40-minute mark for the average transaction. However, as Barnes notes, complex transactions such as title work can take even longer, especially on Mondays, Fridays or the day after an extended holiday weekend.

On Friday, many customers at the Essex MVA would have been happy if their wait had been only 40 minutes. The branch was packed, with most seats taken, and a line ran from the reception desk almost to the door. Around 11:30 a.m., with the office packed, roughly half of the service counters were staffed.

Sheila Surratt of Dundalk and her daughter Kasey had been waiting for more than an hour. Sheila made business phone calls and Kasey was texting as they sat on hard plastic chairs waiting for their number to be called, so they could transfer a title to Kasey.

Sheila Surratt said it was a typical performance for that office, which is tucked inconspicuously into a strip mall on Eastern Boulevard. "It's always this crowded. There's really not that much incentive for them to improve. You have a monopoly on the market."

Neither mother nor daughter was surprised that Essex has been ranked the slowest branch, but they questioned the 40-minute average. "They're lying," Kasey Surratt said.

The Surratts would finally wind up their business in an hour and 45 minutes, with their transaction taking nine minutes.

"Look at all the lost wages and lost time it costs because you're sitting there for hours," Sheila Surratt said.

Barnes said she's complained to MVA employees at the Essex branch.

"They tell me that if I don't like it, I should go to another office. I can go to Bel Air," said Barnes, who has helped operate Parkville Tag and Title for 16 years, earning a living largely by absorbing the aggravation her customers would otherwise experience themselves.

Last week, she said, there was one day when the lines were especially long at Essex and the registration renewal kiosk was out of order — so she did go to Bel Air. She figured she saved time by waiting only 15 minutes there compared with a couple of hours in Essex.

"Everybody hates the MVA," she fumed.

Well, not everybody.

Maryland's motor vehicle administrator, John T. Kuo, said wait times actually decreased from 2001 to 2011, even as Maryland added a half-million residents and MVA staffing dropped by 15 percent. He said average wait times have dropped from just over 35 minutes to 20-22 minutes, while the typical transaction still takes 5-6 minutes.

Kuo said serving more people with a smaller staff has forced the agency to innovate. Among other measures, the MVA plans to allow Marylanders to renew their driver's licenses online starting next year. Prospective drivers will still have to appear in person to get an initial Maryland license.

As more of the MVA's simple tasks migrate to electronic systems such as the Internet or voice-recognition service, customers in the offices may see a change, Kuo said. Waiting times may decrease, he said, but the transactions may be more complex and take more time.

Some changes have already been implemented or are underway, Kuo said. For instance, most title renewals can be handled at an electronic kiosk or online. He said kiosks have now been installed in all MVA offices, some offering round-the-clock access.

He also noted that the agency posts wait times online. Late Wednesday morning, the MVA website (http://www.mva.maryland.gov/) showed that there were 13 customers in line for driver's license renewals at the Baltimore office, with a maximum wait time of 48 minutes.

Kuo said wait times at the city branch have dropped since the agency moved from Mondawmin. In early August, the average transaction at the Reisterstown Road office was down to 31 minutes from 37.

Kuo also said he's well aware of the problems in Essex. One factor, he said, is the 10,000-square-foot facility — too small to keep up with demand.

The MVA is looking for a larger replacement, he said. The agency also is exploring an expansion in Howard County — the only metropolitan jurisdiction without a full-service office — where a small express office is located in a Columbia strip mall.

Kuo, who has been MVA chief since 2006, said the agency cannot simply focus on getting customers in and out quickly. The agency also must meet its other goals of promoting highway safety and ensuring the integrity of the identification-issuing process, he said.

But he said the agency's goal is to limit the need for Maryland drivers to appear at an office in person. More services will be provided by appointment only, cutting wait times and reducing the spikes in demand from unpredictable walk-in traffic.

Part of the challenge, Kuo said, is nudging a minority of customers, who insist on going through the lines, into using automated services. "Our new world is: We love all our customers but we don't have to see them," Kuo said.

Michael.dresser@aol.com