Curious CT: Norwich, Old Saybrook among DMV locations with the longest wait times in the state
Norwich — At the Norwich Department of Motor Vehicles branch last week, Putnam resident Trevor J. Clark-Zamoider sat and waited with forms that he had printed at home so he could register an out-of-state vehicle.
People around him sat in chairs holding forms or checking their phones, as music played softly in the background and they waited for the number on their ticket to appear on the screens, signaling it was their turn to go to one of the counters.
Clark-Zamoider had been at the DMV for about a half-hour and — by looking at his number — was expecting to wait another hour, but he had set aside the whole day.
"It's the DMV," he said. "Everyone expects a wait."
At the DMVs in Norwich and Old Saybrook, that is especially true. According to an analysis of DMV data from 2016 to 2019, Old Saybrook had the highest average wait time each year. Norwich had the third highest average wait time in 2016 and 2017 and the fourth highest in 2018.
At those two locations, average wait times increased, if slightly, most years from 2016 to 2018. In Norwich, the average wait time was one hour and 19 minutes in 2018, but dipped to 56 minutes last year. In Old Saybrook, the average wait time went from one hour and 27 minutes in 2018 to 1 hour and 1 minute last year.
The Day has an open request in to the DMV for the remaining data back to 2009.
Residents, who responded to The Day's request for input or were interviewed at the DMV, shared a variety of perspectives, with some expressing frustrations with long wait times and others noticing improvements in recent years.
The analysis came after Stonington resident Mark Lash asked the question for The Day's Curious CT series: "Why is there still such a long wait at the DMV after the time & money spent to install the new computer system a few years ago? It seems like the wait is still just as long, if not longer?"
In 2015, Lash went to the Old Saybrook DMV to get a license plate and registration for his new trailer, soon after the DMV reopened after the computer system upgrade, he said. He arrived at 7:45 a.m. — 15 minutes before it opened — and the line was out to the street. His visit wrapped up about 2 or 2:15 in the afternoon.
“It took so long,” he said.
When he returned a couple of years later to get a new license plate, his mid-week visit took him about two hours.
In 2018, he submitted an online application for a replacement registration, but it didn't come when it was supposed to, he said. He called the DMV and was sent a replacement.
In June 2019, he waited for more than two hours for a 20-minute session for his license renewal with a change.
Lash, who moved to the area in 1987, said he noticed that in other states, towns of any size have a DMV location, which means more employees to help customers and shorter wait times.
With southeastern Connecticut's large, transient military population, there is likely a higher percentage of people who need to access the DMV, for example to get a license change, than in other parts of the state, he said.
DMV Deputy Commissioner Tony Guerrera said the administration under Gov. Ned Lamont and DMV Commissioner Sibongile Magubane, along with the DMV staff, are trying to be more advanced with technology, weigh how to allow people to do more transactions online, and consult with DMVs in other states.
"DMV is in a very unique position right now because there is so much technology out there that we’re going to be able to get our hands on," Guerrera said, adding that the department is hoping that in a few years people might not even need to go to the DMV branches and drivers can renew their licenses on a smartphone.
At the same time, he said the state agency is cognizant that many people can't afford a computer or have the capability to go online, so the DMV still will have branches to accommodate those who want services in person and to pay in cash, he said.
The DMV also is ensuring that when customers arrive at a branch, an employee is greeting them to walk them through the process and make sure people have the proper documents, Guerrera said. "Why would we make you wait, even a half-hour, to tell you you didn’t have the right documentation?"
"It’s just the processes to walk in an individual’s footsteps to understand what we’re doing and how is it we can make their service a more memorable experience," he added.
Guerrera said the DMV is reaching out to existing partners, such as AAA and Nutmeg State Financial Credit Union, to do some transactions. Another change has people renewing their licenses every 8 years, rather than 6.
He said the administration was able to make "significant, significant improvement" in less than 12 months, with customer wait times down. Across the state, average wait times improved from 2018 to 2019.
"Do we have some more improvement to do?" Guerrera said. "Absolutely."
The DMV is looking at the demographics of geographic areas. For example, he said Norwich and Old Saybrook branches service a high number of boat owners so the DMV is looking to see if boat dealerships could handle some of those transactions or if more services could be offered online instead of clogging up local branches.
The DMV also is looking at peak hours and is creating a "triage team" to be called on if employees get sick or if a branch is heavily trafficked at a certain time.
Some customers see improvement, others don't
As a young adult, Kelsey Robinson went to the DMV with her mother and it "used to be crazy," she said. But when the Montville resident, now 27, went there six months ago, she was "in and out."
Robinson arrived at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Norwich DMV to register a vehicle and was out by 11:40 a.m. "I'd say there was at least 40 people in front of me, so I'm pretty impressed," she said.
But Kevin Gallego, who had just picked up a ticket with his father to wait for a transfer of plates, was anticipating a long wait.
"Every time we come here, we have to wait," Guerrera said, though his father added that he had noticed improvements during a couple of past visits.
Oakdale resident Catherine Dion said she waited only about a half-hour to get a title for her car during her Tuesday visit to the Norwich DMV, whereas in 2017 she waited at least an hour for her license.
She said it helps that people go straight to get a ticket at the door, rather than having to wait in line to get a ticket.
Norwich resident William Blackwell was visiting the Norwich DMV recently to get a new copy of his registration, which he could have done online except he didn't have a working printer. He said he had only been waiting about an hour and probably had a half-dozen people before his turn.
Blackwell, who used to live in New Bedford, Mass., said a trip to the DMV is exactly the same in Massachusetts. "This is what a DMV is all about," he said.
He pointed out that there's only so much "money in the till." The DMV could be open six days a week with clerks at all counters, but it likely would mean a tax increase, he said.
But Stephanie Belser of Groton said by email that she waits much longer in Connecticut than she did for similar services in Missouri, where she used to live.
After her move to Connecticut in 2018, she got a Connecticut license, title and plates in just under three hours at the Old Saybrook DMV.
In Missouri, people first visit their county treasurer’s office to get a form saying they don’t owe personal property tax and then go to the “License Bureau,” she said. The bureaus are privately run, usually by a local nonprofit, such as the local Rotary Club or Lions Club, and operate under a state franchise.
"You see one person to get your plates, title and another person who does the eye test and issues the license,” Belser said. “Start to finish is usually 30 or 45 minutes."
“Everyone in Connecticut seems to have a personal story about what a horror show it is to go to the DMV,” she added. “Nobody in Missouri seems to have a bad story about going to the License Bureau, except maybe during lunch hour.”
Paula Murano, who retired from Pfizer and now lives in Florida, said by email that she left Connecticut about a year ago due to having to pay high taxes and the state income tax, and the inflated cost of living. But the "final straw" was the DMV.
"The 2015 changes didn’t fix a grossly inadequate system and didn’t make much difference," she said.
She questioned why Connecticut can't mirror Florida's system. In Florida, she said people call to make an appointment, get sent a form, and then there are usually only about three or four people ahead of them when they arrive at the DMV.
She said the entire process takes less than a half-hour: After a DMV employee looks over the paperwork and gives a number, people sit in a spacious waiting room with bathrooms, water fountains and TVs. When their number appears, customers sit at a desk interacting face to face with an agent, answer a few questions, get their photo taken, and then get handed their license.
UPS worker and Waterford resident Todd Tashea said by email that when he went to the Old Saybrook DMV in October 2019 to register a vehicle, he had to drive around several times until he found a parking spot.
He said the system seemed pretty good. He could check wait times before arriving, and the estimate was close to the actual wait time. He took a number and got in line to make sure he had everything before he was called. But he said the wait after that was terrible, and it seemed like there weren't enough workers.
"I had to wait 3 1/2 hrs. to get called and it took less than 10 min to get it done," he said.
New London resident Robert Bareiss, who uses the Norwich DMV office, said the wait has been consistently long and frustrating at every DMV office he’s been to, but his transactions go smoothly, partly because he checks online what he needs to have and comes prepared with his documents.
He said the most frustrating aspect of waiting at the DMV is the amount of time one or two people will consume. “There is inevitably a person with a tax issue, a family transfer that wasn't done correctly, missing info or other disputes that consume an agent's attention for over an hour,” he said.
He said the old DMV computer system was “painfully slow” and the new one seems “at best an incremental improvement.” He pointed to areas in need of improvement, such as the need to make it easier to get vanity plates or Classic or Long Island Sound plates. But he said the current number calling is functional.
He said he’s always walked out with plates, correct paperwork and “a sense of relief that that's finally over.”
“I know this service could be better but it will require many more people to get it there,” he added.
Some residents have found tips to make a trip to the DMV smoother.
James Harty of Mystic said that when he had to register a newly purchased car in December 2018, he followed the advice posted in the Stonington Community Forum on Facebook and went at 9 a.m. Thursday to the Norwich DMV.
He said only five people were in line ahead of him, and the clerks and security guards “were all friendly and relaxed.” He qualified at pre-registration in about 6 minutes. Though there was some delay when a clerk mistook his name for a similar name, once that was cleared up, he took a seat to fill out the forms and waited his turn, which came in 20 minutes.
Including the time it took to put on the new plates and have a chat with the security guard about the weather and a Pittsburgh Steelers hat — Harty's hometown football team — he was in and out of the DMV in about 50 minutes.