NJ.com- MVC chaos was unnecessary. Warnings were ignored. | Opinion

Larry Higgs | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com Long waits at Motor Vehicle agencies

By Anthony M. Bucco

None of the chaos that has occurred over the past two weeks at recently reopened Motor Vehicle Commission agencies needed to happen. People shouldn’t have been forced to line up in the middle of the night for a chance to get through the door. Drivers who waited in line for hours didn’t need to be turned away. All of this was completely predictable and preventable.

In fact, I warned the Murphy Administration of this exact scenario more than two months ago, long before lines started forming outside the commission’s agencies across New Jersey. In early May, I reached out directly to MVC Chief Sue Fulton asking for their reopening plan and offering solutions to help address the massive backlog that was growing day by day.

To my dismay, I never received an acknowledgment of my request or the actual plan that I had hoped to review. It didn’t seem like the Murphy administration was taking the challenge of the situation seriously. Based on the barrage of calls and emails that were coming into my legislative office from drivers looking for help, I knew that was a mistake.

Almost as quickly as MVC agencies closed their doors in March in response to the emerging threat of COVID-19, my district office and those of my colleagues began to hear from drivers who were desperate for help. It was apparent from the start that New Jersey drivers were not getting the clear direction they deserved from the governor or the MVC on what to do with agencies shuttered.

The constant refrain from the administration was that New Jerseyans should try to complete their MVC transactions online, even though many important services were only available in person. That continues to be the case for young drivers seeking to obtain a learner’s permit, probationary license, or basic driver’s license; for many commercial driver and vehicle transactions and for those attempting to get a title for a car.

Many of those who followed Gov. Phil Murphy’s advice to visit the MVC website got nowhere. I know because I was one of those people. When I tried to retitle my late father’s car this spring, I hit the same brick wall as my constituents after following the governor’s directions. Once on the website, I was told my transaction required me to visit an agency in person, which was impossible with MVC offices closed. It was frustrating beyond belief.

Back in my office, we had already witnessed by early May the failure of the state’s overwhelmed unemployment system with more than 1,000 requests for help. While titling a car or obtaining a license may not have been as urgently important as getting unemployment benefits, especially when people were locked down and not traveling much, it seemed clear that pent up demand was poised to crush the MVC.

So on May 7th, I asked Chief Fulton for the MVC’s plan. I warned that “high volumes of people” would swarm agencies upon their reopening and recommended adding extra customer service staff, shifting more services online, and developing protocols to issue temporary licenses to new drivers.

After receiving no response to my initial outreach, I followed up on May 19th with an additional recommendation that driving schools should be allowed to obtain a validated and fully digital permit online for student drivers who have completed their behind the wheel education and had their documents verified.

Again, I never received a response or the Commission’s plan. I had hoped that was simply an oversight as leaders at the MVC were so engrossed in developing a reopening strategy that they simply forgot to respond. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to have been the case.

Instead of heeding my advice from early May to add extra MVC staff to accommodate the surge of customers who were sure to be expected upon reopening, Governor Murphy did the exact opposite.

After refusing calls to furlough idle employees who were collecting their full paychecks for months while government offices were closed, he nonsensically announced state employee furloughs just as those offices, including the MVC, were getting ready to reopen. His timing couldn’t have been worse.

It was only after plunging MVC host communities into chaos and subjecting drivers to long lines and overnight campouts that the governor realized that furloughing MVC employees just as overwhelmed agencies were reopening was a bad idea.

Similarly, MVC Chief Fulton later admitted that she “didn’t anticipate the level of anxiety built up after three months.” We did, but the Murphy Administration chose to ignore our warnings.