The MVA's holding pattern

The recent account of the Motor Vehicle Administration's overcrowded Columbia location and its lack of public restrooms probably struck a nerve with a lot of Maryland motorists. While it's unusual to hear of an MVA sending patrons, including octogenarians, to a neighboring deli when nature calls, stories of overcrowding are not.

Take, for instance, the several hours it required for a 16-year-old aspiring driver to receive her learner's permit at the MVA's Mondawmin Mall location in the middle of a weekday in September. The line at the Essex office wound halfway around a shopping center on a Saturday morning several weeks ago — before the outlet even opened.

While the plight in Columbia may be worse than most — the so-called "express" office is about one-fifth the size of a normal branch and Howard County has grown considerably since it opened 12 years ago — the agency hasn't expanded its facilities or added locations since the 1980s. Instead, the MVA has invested in technology to make its existing 26 offices more efficient, but such management efforts have their limits.

Putting the words "MVA" and "efficiency" in the same sentence may sound like a joke, but the agency has consistently been doing more with less. During the past decade, the number of transactions the MVA administers each year, from car registration renewals to driver's license tests, has grown from about 10 million to nearly 12 million. And some transactions, such as checking the residency of license applicants as federal regulations require, have become more complex and therefore potentially more time-consuming.

Yet the MVA payroll has shrunk from about 2,000 a decade ago to 1,700 now. Remarkably, average customer waiting times have gone done from 50 minutes per visit five years ago to about 30 minutes today. In short, the agency is doing 20 percent more work with 15 percent fewer people, and it's taking 40 percent less time to do it.

That's chiefly because of such efficiencies as the computerized "customer traffic management" system that assigns numbers to patrons, allowing them to sit and wait for a clerk rather than forcing everyone to stand in line. But even Administrator John T. Kuo admits wait times are no longer moving in such a positive direction.

Instead, more changes are coming. Soon, the MVA will be stationing a new generation of self-service kiosks in grocery stores and malls so drivers can renew car registrations at their convenience — the machines even dispense tag stickers. New drivers will be required to make appointments for driving tests, a necessity given the state's recent switch to on-road testing. Plans call for real-time wait times to be posted online for every branch throughout the day so visitors can check first to see what backup they might be facing.

Still, there are occasions when only bricks and mortar will do. The MVA is considering creating a public restroom at the Columbia site (creating permanent access to the one used by employees) and expanding elsewhere. Either move (or both) would be welcome.

Making the MVA more cost-efficient is a necessity, and not just because of the current economy and state budget crisis. But doing so without regard to the impact on customers is not. Some transactions by their nature must be performed in person, and not everyone can adjust his or her schedule to avoid the MVA's busiest hours. The agency may have trimmed average wait times, but too often the delays at offices are anything but average.

For all the hundreds of millions of dollars Maryland motorists pay in vehicle- and driving-related fees and taxes, perhaps a bit more of the state's largesse should be spent to ensure MVA offices don't look like a theater megaplex on the first day of ticket sales for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." It may be too much to expect a visit to an MVA office to be hassle-free, but it need not be a half-day sentence to a distinctly Muggle version of Azkaban either.

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