By Chas Sisk | The Tennessean

A two-year effort to cut the wait for a driver's license has produced uneven results, as advances meant to help Tennesseans avoid long lines have been offset by other setbacks, including a run on gun permits.

Customers waited in the lobbies of driver service centers longer this summer than at any time since 2011, even though state officials have been trying to make it easier for drivers to conduct business without stepping foot in a center.

Gains have been offset by a surge of interest in handgun permits, technological problems and other factors.

More than two years after Gov. Bill Haslam pledged to make trips to the DMV less of a hassle, Tennesseans who visited a driver service center in July lost an average of more than 40 minutes before they were served, the longest wait since he took office.

Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons hopes the setbacks turn out to be temporary. But he also said they show how tough the job of fixing driver service centers has been.

"It is a big challenge," he said. "We came into a situation where there was what I call a culture of mediocrity that had existed for a very long time. And that's not just a problem in Tennessee. I think that's a problem nationwide in driver's license operations."

Tackling the long lines at driver service centers has been a priority since Haslam singled out the waits in his first State of the State address as one of state government's biggest problems. Success would deliver on one of the governor's main goals -- making the state more efficient and delivering better "customer service."

The administration has moved aggressively to divert routine business away from service counters. Two years ago, the Department of Safety began to install self-service kiosks where drivers can renew a license, ask for a replacement, order a duplicate or file a change of address. More than 100 kiosks have been set up since in driver service centers and other locations, including AAA offices and public libraries.

The kiosks and other steps the department has taken -- making more services available online and at county clerks' offices -- seem to have helped. The share of business that takes place at driver service center counters has fallen from 43 percent of all transactions in January 2012 to 36 percent today. Gibbons said the department aims to continue cutting counter business until it constitutes 30 percent of all transactions.

Handgun demand doubles

But one bit of business that must be handled in person at a driver service center is an application for a handgun carry permit.

Requests to carry have doubled statewide since last year, prompted by a round of debate over gun control after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in November and the passage of legislation in Tennessee making permits confidential. Those permit applications must be filed at driver service centers, creating a surge in business that has added to wait times.

Meanwhile, another technological measure has backfired. Earlier this year, the department gradually installed a new computer system for issuing driver's license. The new system links back to the department's central servers and mainframe, and one of its biggest benefits was supposed to be to allow the installation of more driver's license cameras.

The new system was meant to cut down on service times, which would diminish waits for others. The system also was supposed to combat fraud by matching customers' pictures with past photos stored in a database.

But the facial-recognition software has been sluggish, Gibbons said, creating delays as the system searches through mountains of photographs. Over the course of a day, those delays stack up, and wait times have jumped by 10 minutes on average since May.

Driver service centers usually experience an increase in business during the summer months, when students are home from school. But even accounting for that factor, delays have added up, with average wait times back up through the first seven months of the year to their level in 2011.

Drivers languish

It was hard to detect much improvement from the steps taken to cut wait times at the driver service center on Hart Lane in Nashville last week.

People filled the cramped lobby, prompting many to wait outside in the summer heat. Several had been given estimated wait times of three hours or more, and by 2 p.m., agents had stopped issuing numbers to be seen that day, anticipating the 5 p.m. close of business.

A bright spot could be found at the three self-service kiosks. Customers there were able to breeze through their business in minutes, without a wait.

Kenny Spence, a chef who had returned to Tennessee from Maryland, waited with his 2-year-old daughter so he could transfer his license back to the state, a transaction that had to be conducted at the counter. The center seemed disorganized, he said.

"There wasn't any sense of urgency," he said. "It seemed very understaffed."

Hart Lane consistently ranks among the state's worst centers. The office is the most accessible choice for many East Nashville residents, creating a volume far beyond the aging building's capacity. Employee turnover at the center runs high.

But across town at the Centennial Boulevard location -- one of only two locations where wait times were better during the first six months of this year than two years ago -- customers prepared to wait two hours last week. One man sat out front in a folding lounge chair that he had brought with him.

The situations at Centennial Boulevard and Hart Lane show how deeply rooted some of the problems at driver service centers are.

The number of transactions driver services centers handle has exploded in recent years, from about 85,000 a month in 2005 to about 110,000 a month today. Staffing in the driver service division has increased from 287 full-time employees a decade ago to 459 employees in 2013, of whom 348 work within the centers themselves. But that has not eliminated the long waits.

The department won approval this year for a plan to supplement staffing levels by adding up to 52 more part-time workers who can help out at peak hours. But Adecco, the company given the contract to supply the workers, has struggled to find people willing to take the job and who can pass the security checks required before being allowed to issue driver's licenses. A company spokeswoman said its salaries were "competitive" but declined to be specific.

Gibbons acknowledged problems with buildings and staffing levels, but he said it is unrealistic to expect spending increases for either.

"We understand the fiscal limitations the state is under," Gibbons said. "So what we're going to try to do is push more of these transactions outside the center."

While the waits are still bad, Gibbons said improvements are being made to the visit itself.

The department has standardized hours, so centers now open at 8:30 a.m. and close at 5 p.m. local time statewide. Employees, especially new hires, now receive more training. Outside managers from the private sector and the military have been brought in.

The results are incomplete, Gibbons said, but new customer satisfaction surveys appear to show visitors to driver service centers generally are pleased with the agents they see -- once they've seen them.

"They're having to wait too long," Gibbons said, "but I think we've made some real progress."

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