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Invitations before investigation?

RMV 'asking too much' of public, many say

In a common sight behind the rest area, right, a truck and car use both lanes anyone going to the proposed Registry site would have to cross. The truck is heading to a diesel fuel station, while the car is using a McDonald’s drive-through. Gus Steeves. (click for larger version)
July 20, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — Although the Registry of Motor Vehicles is acting as if moving to Charlton is a done deal, residents routinely call it a "terrible" idea.

"I'm sending out invitations as we speak to our grand opening," said Registry spokesman Ann Dufresne.

To most people, the biggest issue is access to the new building, a vacant visitor center at the Pike's Charlton eastbound rest area. Unless users come in off the Pike itself — and thereby have to drive from Sturbridge to Auburn, or vice versa — they park in an employee lot and have to walk about 200 yards around the main building, across a busy parking lot and two lanes of traffic.

Charlton resident Jose Ortiz manages the McDonald's there. He noted the lot is already crowded, especially in the morning, and can't spare the extra spaces Registry traffic will need.

"The traffic is crazy, too," he added, noting that trucks use the route behind the building — which any Registry users would have to cross — "every couple of seconds, all day, every day," (this reporter observed about two per minute in mid-afternoon) and cars use the drive-through beside it as often. He also noted the area would be particularly dangerous for handicapped or elderly people.

He suggested the plan might make sense "if the building were over here," pointing to a vacant field next to the employee lot.

Another employee who left without identifying herself said the plan is "asking too much" of handicapped people and wondered if the Registry would have to create a longer driveway and new lot closer to the building. She said staff people have known about it roughly a month, since managers had "a big meeting" with state officials.

"I think it'll be ridiculous," she said. "The people who work here — where are we going to park? We've been told they'll get the first 14 spaces, so they'll have to make a bigger lot."

Similar opposition to the plan sparked a regional petition campaign proposed by Town Counselor Larry McDonald last week. Signatures were to be turned in by Tuesday, and had exceeded 3,000 by Monday, with a much smaller parallel petition online.

Dufresne said she had not heard of that effort.

She said this project is one of 11 offices statewide moving or closing for financial reasons; five of them are being moved to buildings currently owned by the state. The moves, she added, are the latest in a series of cost-cutting efforts which previously involved reducing hours, eliminating courtesy notices about renewal and "$2 million in [other] operational overhead."

"We have to make these decisions based on the cuts before us," Dufresne said. "… People don't like change, but unfortunately we have such economic and budget constraints that we're targeting our budget-busting leases system-wide."

As we reported last week, the Registry pays about $6,000 a month for its Southbridge site and is about halfway into its latest five-year lease. A press release on the first closing — in North Attleboro last week — estimated the closures, moves and shifting business to the Internet will save the agency $1.7 million from leases statewide.

It lists the closings as North Attleboro, Cambridgeside Galleria, New Bedford, Eastfield Mall in Springfield, Framingham, Falmouth, Southbridge, Beverly, Lowell, Boston-Chinatown and one day in Eastham. The five replacements are in Charlton and Boston (both full service), plus Natick, Bourne and Beverly (express service).

Southbridge saw about 26,000 customers last year, and Dufresne predicted a similar number at the new site, possibly including Pike travelers.

Cost study not complete

Dufresne said the agency does not yet know what it will cost to refit the Pike site to serve as an office, but is currently doing that research. She predicted a report will be done next week.

To Sturbridge Police Detective Mark Saloio, that research should have been done before making the decision to move.

"If they do have a full service [site] in Charlton and it's truly a place with easy access on and off Route 20, then it is a good idea," Saloio said, speaking only for himself. "But we seem to have a track record of spending before we think."

Saloio said he hasn't visited the site, but predicted moving to a less accessible place would create problems.

"It's difficult to have people maintain their responsibility and accountability as it is," he added. "We're probably going to see more people with expired licenses and expired registrations" if they have trouble getting to the Registry.

Former Sturbridge Selectman Arnold Wilson likewise had nothing good to say about the proposal, dubbing it both "inconvenient" and "a terrible idea." He proposed using another state-owned site near the Route 20/131 intersection that's "essentially doing nothing except training tractor trailer drivers."

Dufresne said the Registry, MassHighway and the Turnpike Authority have "looked at a number of different buildings" as part of planning process, but did not have a list available Monday afternoon. She could not say if the Sturbridge site was among them.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

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