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Mass. Registry shifts online as it closes branches

Glen Johnson

The state Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) is closing some of its branches, a move that will save money but also make online transactions a necessity for customers who want to avoid longer drive and waiting times.

Fortunately, officials say, the most common transactions can be conducted quickly and easily on the Registry’s Web site. If only more people knew that.

Officials estimate that about 30 percent of people in Registry lines at any time don’t have to be there and can conduct their business over the Web instead. In February alone, 78,000 people had licenses about to expire. Just over half — about 40,000 people — could have renewed online. But only 8,500 did.

In 2008, fewer than half the Registry’s 3.9 million transactions were completed online. This year, the Registry is trying to boost traffic by rolling out an array of new services. The branch closings are expected to add to the traffic.

“A lot of people do go online, but this is a great opportunity, and it is an opportunity that’s teetering on the edge of necessity,” said Registrar Rachel Kaprelian. “Once they’ve done it, you’ve got ’em. They get it. They’ll only come to a branch when they need to.”

In most cases, that’s just once every 10 years for a new driver’s license photo.

With tax collections dwindling, the Registry has had its budget slashed along with the remainder of government agencies. It recently announced it would trim its branches from 34 to 23, and supplement them with five mini-offices at Turnpike service centers and Massachusetts Highway Department offices.

A branch in North Attleborough has already closed, and one at the Cambridgeside Galleria shut down last Friday.

To promote the Web site, every Registry mailing or piece of advertising contains the agency’s Web address. The site uses its home page to tout an “Express Lane” of Internet services.

The challenge has been winning over the elderly, who may not be computer-adept; people who may not have computer access; or people who are concerned about the security of online transactions.

This fall, the agency will test a “Registry Day” at several local libraries, giving customers access to free computers and RMV workers who can help them with transactions. It has begun a trial partnership with AAA so the motor club can complete basic transactions — including on Saturdays, when its branches are open but the Registry’s are closed.

And in September, the Registry will open kiosks in its three busiest branches — Boston’s Chinatown, Worcester and Watertown. If a customer service representative determines a driver has no reason to wait, they can be taken out of line and sent to the kiosk to complete their business.

The RMV also is updating its Web site so customers can “pre-stage” their visits over the Internet, allowing them to make appointments and ensure they have all required documents before driving to a branch office.

Most significantly, the Registry is considering asking the Legislature to allow discounts for online transactions.

“You wouldn’t think people would need an incentive to do something that is easier for them, but old habits die hard,” said Registry spokeswoman Ann Dufresne.

The Registry went online in August 1996, the first motor vehicle administrator in the nation to do so. Since then, it has emulated banks, retailers and other customer-driven operations by expanding its Web-based services. It made a quantum leap in 2007, when its 25-year-old computer system was revamped to allow real-time transactions, rather than requiring a delay of a day or two to allow system syncing.

The change allowed drivers to check paperwork progress, automobile license information and conduct other business with immediate results.

Drivers can now change their addresses, become organ or tissue donors and renew their vehicle registrations online. They still must appear at a branch when, for example, they move to Massachusetts from another state, or when they are a new driver getting tested and licensed.

“In these difficult financial times, anything we can do to encourage people to go online, the better off we’ll be in the long run,” said state Sen. Steve Baddour, a Methuen Democrat who is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation.

(Associated Press)