Restoring some of the road-test examiner positions that had been cut in recent years, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has hired two examiners since April to help administer driving tests.
Next month, six more will be brought on board.
So far, however, local residents remain frustrated by the long wait — the average is five to seven weeks — to take a driver’s license test.
“My daughter waited. She applied in June and couldn’t get an appointment till Aug. 10,’’ said Maureen Leveroni of Barnstable.
“She got her appointment and she failed the test, and when we looked on that day again, she couldn’t get another appointment until Sept. 21.”
When her daughter finally took the test last month, it was in Springfield.
“It’s ridiculous. You can’t look for a new date or try [to call the Registry of Motor Vehicles for a date] every morning because you never know, and you can’t look for a new date without canceling the old one,’’ Leveronis said.
“It’s very cumbersome, and it was an unreasonable amount of time to wait.”
Despite promises last spring that conditions would improve, countless teens and adults around the state are continuing to rail against the Registry’s wait times. Also frustrating is the Registry’s practice of only booking appointments less than two months out, only opening it up a day or two at a time. And beyond recently hired testers, no one should expect additional testers in the foreseeable future, officials say.
Prior to 2007, the State Police administered all the road tests. But since coming under MassDOT’s wing, road tests have become progressively harder to schedule. The problem has grown acute as the number of road examiners dropped to 35.5 in April from 59 in January 2008.
Much of the difficulty reflects repeated budget cuts. From 2009 to 2010 alone, MassDOT’s budget dropped from $57.4 million to $42.4 million.
For some, the wait time isn’t even the most frustrating part.
According to Felipe Spinel, a 35-year-old from Colombia who is trying to get a Massachusetts license, securing a road test is “painful.”
Not having a Social Security number to use on the website, Spinel had to call the Registry of Motor Vehicles’ hotline daily, waiting on the phone for 30 to 45 minutes each time, only to be told that nothing was available.
Spinel, a Somerville resident, then was told last Tuesday that the earliest he could schedule a test was the second week of December, and it would have to be in Lowell.
“I already had my original driver’s license from Colombia, where I’m from. Unfortunately, it expired this last December. Instead of going back to Colombia to get a new license over there, I’m doing the right thing, getting one here. I took the [learner’s permit] test, went through the manual, but it’s impossible,” he said.
He eventually got so frustrated that he hired a driving school to book the test for him.
Driving schools, too, are struggling to schedule tests, and some are skeptical that hiring just eight more people will make things much better.
“As far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t improved at all,” said Raymond Haley, owner of Quincy Auto Driving School. “They had 60 and now it’s dropped in half, and then I heard they added eight more,’’ Haley said. “You take 30 away, you add eight; it doesn’t do much.”
Dan Strollo, owner of In Control Driving Crash Prevention in Andover and president of the Professional Driver Education Association of Massachusetts, agreed that despite promises, nothing has improved.
However, he was able to point to one recent promising change.
In the past, only the larger driving schools could schedule an examiner to come to the school to administer road tests on Saturdays. In an effort to make smaller driving schools more competitive, these schools now can team up with other small schools to schedule Saturday road tests.
“It has the potential to level the playing field, but they just came up with the policy in the last couple of weeks,” Strollo said. “It looks good on paper, but we’ll see.”
Strollo is still concerned about the quality of the driving examiners, especially when many of the supervisors, who used to monitor the examiners, are too busy doing road tests themselves.
“I can promise if a teen fails a license test, they weren’t safe to be on the road. But I can’t tell you for sure if those who passed should be out there,” he said.
According to Rachel Kaprielian, the registrar of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the agency is doing all it can with limited resources.
Officials are looking into extending the calendar that currently enables the RMV to book appointments less than two months out. And despite delays, the six new testers should be on the job by mid-November and working on a Tuesday-through-Saturday schedule. With this expanded staffing, wait times will hopefully be more along the four-week range, she said.
“We’ll look at how we schedule road tests, the hours, and offer more opportunities to the public. We’re getting as creative as we can with limited [funding]. But the six road testers coming on will hopefully make a difference in a good way,” she said.
But she added that with the squeeze on the state’s finances, there are no plans to hire more testers anytime soon.
“ It’s suggested that our revenues are not coming in at the pace we expected, and it could lead to more cuts. We’re being told stuff like that; I can’t possibly think that we will hire more people,” Kaprielian said.
State Senator John F. Keenan, a Democrat from Quincy, confirmed that the budget was very uncertain, but said the Registry’s problems could potentially fall into a comprehensive transportation reform package that will be discussed in the new year.
The deciding factor on whether to increase the budget for testers will be how much the new hires reduce wait times.
“I’m anxious to see how the six positions looking to be filled, how that works,’’ Keenan said. “If there is a cutdown on the backlog, on the delay, then it’s something we would advocate be maintained. Six may be too many or not enough, so we’ll wait to see how it works, and will be able to assess.”