Welcome back to the MVC. This is what hell is like | Editorial

Posted Jul 16, 2020

The longest-running Jersey joke, the Motor Vehicle Commission, is in Week 2 of a reboot best described as soul-crushing — largely the result of dodgy workforce management, ill-timed furloughs, a constipated computer system, and customer messaging that would have been better delivered by semaphore.

Yes, things have improved since they popped the lid on July 7. In the first few days, people showed up hours before dawn, hundreds endured abject misery as the heat sat on them like a possessive parent, and too many forgot to wear masks and mind their distances.

Some actually did a crab-crawl on MVC sidewalks for 10 or 12 hours before giving up and returning the next morning. To put that in perspective, weep hysterically.

We should all agree that this pandemic must be the change agent for government institutions and critical state functions, rather than as just another blowtorch that illuminates our failures —  matters such as voting, remote learning, unemployment filing, emergency food distribution, and many aspects of health care, such as testing protocols.

Rethinking the MVC — or transit, writ large — is part of that.

“This pandemic shined a light on our problems,” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg says. “Whether we are talking about nursing homes, unemployment, motor vehicles or the other ways in which our residents were unduly burdened, we must have the best minds in the bureaucracy, the administration, the Legislature and others propose solutions.”

Some solutions aren’t particularly complex, at least not at the MVC — certainly not when it had nearly four months to prepare for a customer crush that was entirely predictable, given the backlog of 60,000 road tests they already knew were coming.

Chief administrator Sue Fulton told Larry Higgs of NJ Advance Media that she “didn’t anticipate the level of anxiety built up after three months.” She didn’t foresee that 60,000 teenagers might be impatient to get their licenses after being quarantined for 100 days? Did she skip age 17?

They adjusted by implementing a ticket system in most facilities by Day 3, but that should have been in place so people didn’t have to spend so much time on the line to nowhere. “You could learn that much from the local deli,” said Sen. Joseph Lagana (D-Bergen).

It should be just as elementary to establish an online appointment system, so that people don’t have to schlep if they’re not going to get service. But the MVC doesn’t provide that, because it cannot pre-determine how long each appointment takes, according to Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex). That’s nuts.

“So without a doubt, we have to bring the MVC up to date on technology,” said Diegnan, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “It’s a decade behind in many areas.”

Some tech has been upgraded to comply with federal Real ID requirements. But this agency handles millions of transactions each year, and it has a half-century of data stored in mainframes from the 1980s. The MVC always seems to be last on the list when they hand out the new hardware, even though it is a big revenue producer.

The staff, by all accounts, did its best. Fulton pointed out that they issued 15 percent more new licenses and registration than they did during the average day in January, “and that was with 65 percent staffing” due to furloughs and COVID.

Just imagine how many more people could have been served if they didn’t initially furlough MVC employees, or reassigned other state workers that could have filled in the gaps.

Murphy audibled after the tumultuous reopening, exempting the MVC from furloughs and extending dates for license and registration renewals. But these were almost afterthought, and that’s troubling.

This is not an agency that can be neglected anymore. Call it another COVID lesson: The state had three months to prepare for this, three months to get tech systems up to speed and to summon the manpower to alleviate the crush.

“It was inexcusable,” Diegnan said. “This cannot ever happen again. We have to learn from this.”

 How many more years will pass before we do?

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