Seven weeks after the state launched a new system for issuing driver’s licenses, wait times at Registry of Motor Vehicles locations are still “definitely slower than we want,” state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said Monday.
The RMV has been beset by long waits since it began issuing new federally compliant Real ID licenses on March 26. Things were so bad in the first few weeks that the agency shifted its long-held goal of serving 80 percent of motorists in 30 minutes or less, to serving 80 percent in less than an hour by the end of April. But according to new data released Monday, the RMV hit that adjusted goal only a handful of days in April.
Certain RMV branches are moving faster than others. On Martha’s Vineyard and in North Adams, more than 80 percent of customers were served in less than 30 minutes last week, while Nantucket was over 90 percent.
At the downtown Boston location, however, the figure was 23 percent, and it “will be awhile” before busy, struggling branches in places like Boston and Lawrence hit the 30-minute goal, Pollack said at a Transportation Department board meeting.
“We’re seeing very different results at different locations,” she said. “To be honest, I’d be happier if we already had a higher percentage [of branches meeting wait-time goals]. But I think last week in particular we really started to see the corner turned, and a higher percentage of our centers getting the new system.”
Registry offices are rarely thought of as a hallmark of speedy service. But they’ve been slowed considerably since Real ID was implemented, with some drivers reporting wait times of more than four hours. Officials have cited several related reasons.
Under the new rules, motorists must show proof of citizenship or immigration papers, and proof of Massachusetts residency, to obtain either a Real ID or a traditional Massachusetts license. It takes more time to process these documents than under the previous renewal system.
Meanwhile, to issue the new licenses, the state updated its registry software, giving workers a steep learning curve to climb.
And motorists cannot obtain a Real ID license online; they must visit a registry or AAA office to do so. That may drive more motorists into branches if they want a Real ID, which will be the only driver’s license accepted to board a domestic flight after October 2020. State data show that the percentage of drivers who went online for a new license dropped by 15 percent in April compared to the previous year.
Officials said Monday they expect to see weekly improvement in wait times. The long-term goal is for all RMV offices to limit 80 percent of waits to 30 minutes or less, but RMV chief Erin Deveney declined to set a timeline for that.
“We’re going to continue to work to hit that target all across the state until we actually get there,” Deveney said.
Deveney urged Massachusetts motorists to use an online preapplication form before going to a registry office for a license renewal. If enough drivers do so, it could speed up transactions — but less than 20 percent of drivers have used the form since the new system went into place.
Deveney said the RMV’s Braintree branch is testing a system to give drivers who fill out the preapplication express service at locations, which could expand to other locations.
Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan, a transportation department board member, questioned Monday whether the RMV should have instituted the new software at the same time it began issuing Real IDs. “Were we biting off too much?” he asked.
Deveney said the agency launched the systems at the same time to give residents with expiring licenses plenty of time to obtain a Real ID before October 2020. Pollack added that Real ID alone isn’t to blame for the slowdown, because even standard Massachusetts licenses now require proof of citizenship and take more time to process. Just 39 percent of customers at RMV offices have opted for Real ID, although the number is much higher at AAA locations.
But Pollack said the RMV could have done better to alert customers to the changes, make the preapplication easier to find online, and tell drivers they don’t necessarily need a Real ID. For example, Massachusetts residents who want to board a domestic flight after 2020 without a Real ID will still be able to use a passport or other form of federal identification.Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro.