Dozens of glum-faced customers waited three hours or more Wednesday to renew their licenses in the new "DMV Express" office in West Haven City Hall that is supposed to divert people from regular DMV branches and save them time. (Jon Lender / Hartford Courant)
State and local officials on March 28 celebrated the opening of Connecticut’s first “DMV Express” — a driver’s license-renewal center in West Haven City Hall that was touted as a safety valve to divert crowds from overburdened regular Department of Motor Vehicles branches.
Their rosy release to the news media talked of “easing the congestion in the Bridgeport and Hamden branch offices” with the first of several planned contractor-operated “express” centers — which would fill a void created 16 months ago when the AAA Northeast motor club stopped renewing 150,000 licenses annually for the DMV at its offices in Fairfield and New Haven counties.
But nothing’s been easy for the DMV in its effort to replace those lost AAA Northeast offices in Branford, Danbury, Fairfield, Hamden, Milford, Norwalk, Stamford and Waterbury.
This was proven again on Wednesday, two weeks after the opening-day optimism, when customers waited three hours or more for service — and the new “DMV Express” center could easily have been mistaken for any old regular, jammed-up DMV branch.
“Too long,” was 94-year-old West Haven resident Richard Koziel’s succinct assessment after waiting from 10:15 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. to finally renew his license. He didn’t have time to say more as his daughter, Debbie MacLennan, hustled him out. “I got to get him home,” she said. “He didn’t eat since this morning.”
The City of West Haven has a contract with the state to house the licensing facility on the lower level of its municipal office building, using DMV equipment that’s operated two days a week by the city’s subcontractor, the West Haven Chamber of Commerce. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
“They told me it would be pretty fast here. I took a shot, and I’ve been here since 9:30,” Mario DiRienzo, 79, of Woodbridge, said around 1:30 p.m, adding that the next time he needs a license renewal, “I will not come here, that’s for sure.”
“This is ridiculous,” muttered a guy nearby.
But DiRienzo was more charitable, saying, “The people, they’re very nice. It’s just that everybody found out about this place, and everybody came.”
That’s what officials involved in establishing the new West Haven operation were saying to explain Wednesday’s woes.
“I’m not surprised by the wait time … the first week, the wait time was only about 15 minutes, but as word spread in the region, people started flocking to the new alternative site,” said state Rep. Dorinda Borer, D-West Haven, who helped spearhead the initiative to bring the new licensing office to her local city hall.
Borer said that DMV’s statistics show that “over 70 percent of the foot traffic is from outside of West Haven. This was actually one of the reasons we wanted to host DMV in our city, to bring new folks in [to visit downtown restaurants and businesses].” She said that “serving 600 people in the first few weeks in West Haven” — the DMV put the actual number at 575 on Thursday — “means that was 600 less in line in the Hamden office.”
Fallout From 2016 Dispute
All of this is happening now because a dispute couldn’t be resolved two years ago between DMV and AAA Northeast CEO Mark Shaw — over Shaw’s desire to stop renewing licenses for non-AAA members at his offices after being under contract with the state for 16 years.
DMV insisted that if state resources were being used, AAA Northeast had to serve all drivers including non-members (as another independent auto club affiliate, AAA Allied, still does in its offices in Avon, Cromwell, Enfield, Manchester, Old Saybrook, Plainville, Waterford and West Hartford).
The state pulled its licensing equipment from AAA Northeast’s offices after its final contract expired Dec. 31, 2016, and since then an estimated 150,000 customers a year have returned to the regular DMV branches.
Wait times increased to two to three hours at a few of those downstate branches. In response, DMV Commissioner Michael Bzdyra and his lieutenants solicited proposals last year from businesses and organizations that might be willing to enter contracts like AAA Allied’s, and now the city of West Haven’s, to collect a $5-per-transaction fee to perform services including renewals of driver’s licenses and ID cards. They also provide duplicate licenses for drivers who lost theirs. (The regular DMV renewal and duplicate-license fees are also collected on behalf of the state.)
Last month, Bzdyra signed a contract with one of the two bidders chosen to open “DMV Express” offices in the area that AAA Northeast used to serve: Nutmeg State Financial Credit Union, based in Rocky Hill. Nutmeg is expanding from central Connecticut to the west and southwest, and it’s constructing a Milford branch that will become its first driver’s-licensing center with the goal of opening this summer, said Lisa Asadourian, the credit union’s senior vice president and chief engagement officer.
Nutmeg plans a center that “truly lives up to the name DMV Express,” Asadourian said. “We know that we’ll be able to provide faster, more convenient service” with a “digital platform” that will “more easily manage the wait times.” The credit union envisions an eventual four or five licensing centers in that area under the five-year contract.
DMV also says it is in “the last stages” of negotiating a potential contract with its other selected bidder: The WorkPlace, a nonprofit organization based in Bridgeport that serves employers and job seekers in its role as southwestern Connecticut’s state-designated regional Workforce Development Board. The WorkPlace has a half-dozen sites where licensing services could be provided, including one in Stamford that’s been a focus of discussions.
Wednesday’s onslaught of customers in West Haven was a surprise to West Haven Chamber of Commerce Director Alan Olenick, who runs the new license-renewal operation.
“We opened at 9 [o’clock] with 30 people waiting to get in,” he said Wednesday, “and that has just backed us up.” He said that once customers got to the examiners at the office’s three service booths, the photo license transactions went fast — six to 10 minutes.
“I think we’re looking at probably opening another day” — three days a week, in other words — “to spread it out more,” he said.
If the city and chamber aqree to open three days a week, that would be all right with the DMV under the contract, said the state department’s spokesman and chief of staff, William Seymour.
Olenick said the flow of customers was better on Thursday, and the typical wait time was halved, to about 90 minutes. The Chamber of Commerce shares 50 cents of every $5 transaction fee — 10 percent — with the city, he said.