AUGUSTA — Many Maine motorists have been stuck in the slow lane at the state’s Bureau of Motor Vehicle branch offices this summer – with thousands waiting more than 1½ hours to get their licenses renewed or new cars registered.

Kristen Muszynski, a spokeswoman for the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees the BMV, said Friday that the situation isn’t normal for an agency that is usually praised for its speedy and helpful customer service.

“We are usually a lot quicker,” she said. “We’ve just had a perfect storm of different things coming into play right now.”

One major factor, Muszynski said, is a staffing shortage that’s left the BMV offices with 15 staff vacancies across the three different regions of the state – south, central and north.

Some customers at the Portland BMV office on Presumpscot Street said Friday that they waited as long as three hours for service.

Nick Hoffman, 20, of Kennebunk said this was his third day in a row waiting to turn in paperwork documenting his driving hours on a learner’s permit. Hoffman said he waited two hours Wednesday, an hour Thursday and was going on another hour Friday.

“It’s pretty frustrating,” he said.

Bill Robinson of Falmouth came to register a car but after taking a ticket number for No. 220, he turned around and left – as workers paged No. 97 over the office’s loudspeakers.

“I’ll have to try another day,” Robinson said.

Nick Hoffman, center, of Kennebunk waits for his number to be called at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles office in Portland on Friday. He said it was his third day in a row waiting to turn in paperwork documenting his driving hours on a learner’s permit. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Jim Beale of Portland was there to get his motorcycle license at 9:30 a.m. but left at noon for lunch when his number (116) hadn’t come up and it looked like it would be a while. But by the time Beale got back, his number had passed and he had to take another — 246.

While frustrated – Beale said he could think of better ways to spend a sunny Friday afternoon – he was understanding of the state’s situation and said finding workers was a problem for many businesses in Maine.

“I get it,” he said. “I’m not that upset really. I just made a poor choice. Also, the last day of the month is always busy. So what am I doing here?”

The BMV’s vacancies represent 21 percent of the staff in the 70-person bureau. The starting wage for BMV customer service workers is $14.16 an hour but that is going to $14.58 an hour starting in September, Muszynski said.

Nationally, the average wait time for a customer in a bureau of motor vehicles office is 34 minutes, according to an eight-month study conducted by BMV.com in 2018. The website is a clearinghouse portal for motorists offering links to online license and registration services, as well as educational postings for drivers.

The site also ranks the best and the worst BMV operations around the country. Among those with notorious reputations for long wait times and poor customer service are Connecticut, South Carolina and Oregon. Those with the best rankings include Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. Maine ranks near the middle of the pack.

Muszynski said the bureaus have been slowed considerably by a wave of Mainers trying to switch their driver’s licenses to the new federally compliant Real ID, the regular uptick in summer traffic and vacation season.

“When we combine the 11 percent increase in traffic with the number of positions vacant, the implementation of Real ID, the summer vacation season, and already minimal staffing levels, that creates longer wait times for customers,” she said.

In all, the bureaus have seen 8,000 more customers from July 1 to Aug. 20 this year than they did for the same period last year, according to data Muzsynski provided to the Portland Press Herald.

Average wait times in that period for the bureaus in Bangor and Portland were 55 and 51 minutes, respectively. And 2,244 customers waited longer than 100 minutes for service, according to the bureau’s data.

Muszynski said six new staffers are in training. She also suggested that residents consider delaying applying for a Real ID, as the federal government won’t enforce that requirement for Mainers until October 2020.

Muszynski also noted that many bureau services, including basic driver’s license renewals and motor vehicle registrations, are provided online. She said those who must visit the BMV should try to avoid Mondays, which is always a busy day, and to avoid the midday lunchtime crush between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

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