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New RMV site 'low-hanging fruit'

Layoffs, test site among changes yet to come

Southbridgian Chris Crosbie, left, helps his mother, Ada, get a photo ID. Gus Steeves. (click for larger version)
August 10, 2009
CHARLTON — The grand opening of the new Registry of Motor Vehicles went off without a hitch Monday, but left quite a few customers grumbling anyway.

"I've seen the state do asinine things before, but this has to be the biggest," said Southbridge resident Chris Crosbie, who was there helping his mother get a photo ID. "The immensity of this insanity is too big for me to comprehend."

To Registrar Rachel Kaprielian, however, the motivation was simple — budget cuts. Again citing $13 million sliced from the RMV budget since fiscal 2009 began, she claimed the move was "a fire drill, a scramble" to make sure her agency was able to save money this fiscal year. Besides closing or moving 10 branches statewide, the RMV will also be cutting staff in numbers "proportional to the traffic in the branches," she added, but did not yet have figures.

Customers await a chance to see an RMV agent. (click for larger version)
Kaprielian said the Charlton site, at the Mass Pike's eastbound rest area, will be a "full-service branch," but it won't offer road tests. People seeking those have to go to Worcester for now, but the RMV is "looking at other places I don't really want to talk about," she said.

Speaking briefly from the podium before the formal ribbon-cutting, Kaprielian described the move as taking advantage of "low-hanging fruit" and "a very powerful example of when state agencies combine resources." She was referring to the fact that the new site is owned by the Mass Turnpike Authority (MTA). Under that arrangement, the RMV doesn't pay rent, and the MTA and Mass Highway covered the costs of the main upgrades, she said.

MTA Executive Director Jeffrey Mullan said his agency is now compiling the cost of the work it did.

The new RMV itself is inside the former tourist information center. It was busy even before the ceremony, with equipment, staff and at least two dozen customers crowded into a low-ceilinged space noticeably smaller the Southbridge site. RMV spokesman Ann Dufresne said it's about 1,200 square feet; the original location near Big Bunny was about 3,100 square feet. The lease at the Big Bunny site was $59,900 a year, and it served between 60,000 and 70,000 customers a year, she added.

To get to the new site, people had to either hop on the Pike itself or thread their way through a crowded employee parking lot off Route 20. The latter had cars on the grass and in areas marked "No Parking" all the way down to Route 20, plus some vehicles parked behind others and a man in an unmarked white van directing traffic.

That seriously annoyed Sturbridge's Bill Muir. He objected to the fact getting to handicapped parking requires going on the Pike and said he was initially directed to park in a secondary lot that's down a short road at the far end of the main lot.

He opted not to do that, and said he'll "just forego seeing what she has to say."

"There is absolutely no need for it," Muir said as he departed. "She [Kaprielian] doesn't know what the hell she's doing. This doesn't make any sense."

Kaprielian said the Registry will "make adjustments" to the parking situation after it sees how things work for a while, admitting, "We believe it's not enough."

"In times like this, everybody's got to appreciate things aren't going to be the same," she said, later noting the RMV is "the first of many public entities that may change."

The MTA is also in flux. Not only is it going to be absorbed by Mass Highway later this year, it opened three bids to manage the leases at Pike rest areas about six weeks ago.

Describing the proposal as seeing if companies were interested in "buying the income stream," Mullan said the agency is still reviewing those bids to determine if they fairly reflect the long-term value of the leases to the Commonwealth. It plans to decide whether to actually make such a deal at all, and if so, with whom, later this month, he said.

"We're not changing the monetary arrangement at any of the plazas," Mullan said when asked if the change could nix the Registry's rent-free status. "[The deal] would be subject to the existing agreements," and the RMV has an open-ended deal valid "as long as it continues to work and provide service."

Although there was a state trooper directing traffic on the truck lane near the new crosswalk, Mullan said that will not be a permanent post.

"A lot of it is adjustment — getting truckers used to the changed situation," he said, noting that many drivers stop here repeatedly. He did not know how long it might take for knowledge of the change to spread.

Inside, a Webster man who did not give his name said he "didn't know about it until I went to Southbridge in the morning." He said he was told by a woman who was equally surprised by the move, and "nobody seemed to know where it was here in Charlton."

There are several new signs on Route 20, including two big lightboards warning of the proximity of that driveway. There's also one near the Pike off-ramp into the rest area, but that was not working at least some part of Monday.

Despite the apparent confusion, at least one customer was satisfied. Charlton's Kenneth Wilson said he likes the fact it's closer to his house and found service to be "moving along good." He wasn't particularly concerned about the location's safety "as long as I'm able to get out of here," he said, referring to Route 20 traffic.

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

See Wednesday's Southbridge Evening News for complete coverage of community news.

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