I-Team: Wait times steadily increasing at DMV

On a Friday afternoon, Rhode Island's Division of Motor Vehicles is about as busy as a state agency can get.

Some customers run in full sprint to get inside before the doors close for the day.

Inside, customers seem to find two paths: either move right along or they're stopped dead in their tracks.

"I've been waiting 45 minutes," said customer Allan Benoit.

"It's crazy. We were actually in that line initially and got pulled out," said Melissa Thomas of Cranston.

Jackie Leroux took half a day off of work and was waiting outside for a dealer to show up with the proper documents. She made a last-minute distress call for the paperwork before the close of business.

"Not a great day, no. But others have had it worse," Leroux said.

Bill Niosi said he needed three hours to finish his transaction.

"I don't know, not enough help I guess?" he said.

For months, the NBC 10 I-Team has been watching the wait time numbers at the DMV skyrocket.

The data is posted on the state's transparency portal, a website created during the Chafee administration and dedicated to providing more open government.

Last year, the average wait time at the DMV was 35 minutes. This year, through June, that number has grown more than 50 percent to an average wait time of 53 minutes.

The I-Team took the data right to the DMV's administrator Tony Silva for answers.

"I have some sleepless nights. When people can't get service in a timely manner, they call me, they knock on the door, they come in and complain and they yell at me," Silva said.

Long lines and frustrated faces don't stop Silva from working a crowd. The former police officer almost seems to enjoy tackling the problem with a hands-on approach like he's dispersing a riot on the street.

"DMV's across the country, no matter what state you're in have the same day to day issues, the issues are staffing. We got caught in a period of where we had a number of our staff members transition to other state agencies. They basically took better jobs, higher paying jobs. It was a perfect storm, it all hit at the same time and our wait times suffered," Silva said.

The DMV has 15 fewer employees working this year compared to last.

The agency has become Gov. Lincoln Chafee's crown jewel. He made it a priority to improve the overall attitude and slash wait times. The strategy worked. He even chose to stand outside the DMV to announce he was not running for re-election. It was his example of a resurrected state department.

But with those numbers spiking once again, NBC 10 wanted to know what Chafee and the state were doing to keep employees at the DMV and keep the wait times down.

"First to put things in perspective; when you say 53 minutes, when I first came into office it was more like four or five hours and that was one of the challenges I inherited, changing that," Chafee said.

The governor told the NBC 10 I-Team that new trainees are in the system which will help plug the employment gap.

"We've been monitoring this through the spring and when we saw these higher numbers we wanted to address it with 13 new people coming on and also perhaps some flexibility; part timers that can come in, all these initiatives will address the key words resources and customer service," Chafee said.

"The two most important things here are keep the wait times down and provide the best customer service we can do," Silva said.

Customers appear to be getting at least part of that message.

"Two and a half hours but the service was good," said one woman quickly on her way out of the Cranston DMV.

"The wait is a little too long in my opinion, but overall not too bad, people are friendly," Benoit said.