SOMERVILLE, NJ - By late morning, the line of people waiting to get inside the state Motor Vehicle Commission office at 10 Roosevelt Pl. had grown to over 500 people and stretched for several hundred yards down the street and on to Schoolhouse Lane before extending further on to Fieldstone Drive.
Most people on the line seemed resigned to the long wait, the first day the agency and other MVC offices across the state re-opened following a state-mandated shutdown authorized by Gov. Phil Murphy's executive order issued in March to enforce social distancing and eliminate crowds from congregating indoors at non-essential businesses.
Many came prepared for the long wait, bringing collapsible chairs, umbrellas to hide from the sun, bags of food from nearby convenience stores and coolers.
An employee of the MVC agency worked her way along the line of waiting motorists, asking questions, providing answers and distributing forms and pens to help expedite the process once they reached the inside of the office. She had to stop a few times and return to the office to re-supply. The Somerville agency was limited to processing registration, title, and license plate transactions.
Mayor Dennis Sullivan said the agency opened at 8:04 a.m., by which time hundreds of people had shown up, beginning to line up down Roosevelt Avenue into the residential neighborhood. Sullivan said he spoke to the first woman in line, who had arrived at 2:30 a.m., waiting 5 1/2 hours to conduct her business.
Others in line said they had waited between 3-5 hours before creeping up to a point where they were alongside the building.
One woman crossing Union Avenue clutching her new license plates and paperwork in her hand said she had arrived at 6 a.m., leaving by 11:30 a.m., but she was happy because she had purchased a used car privately in March and hadn't been able to drive it without the plates and registration.
The beleaguered Somerville agency, the source of neighborhood complaints for years because of illegal parking and other traffic issues, is on a short list to be closed and moved to another location by the MVC when a suitable facility is located, according to Sullivan, who was critical of the state agency for being unprepared Tuesday.
Sullivan said he and other borough officials had had a conference call about three weeks ago with MVC Commissioner Sue Fulton, who has visited the site at least twice the past two years to assess the location and to tell local officials that the office was on the short list to be re-located.
The call concerned preparations for Tuesday's opening; Sullivan said there was a possibility that a portable trailer equipped to handle MVC transactions was going to be brought to the Somerville location, but that did not happen. He also criticized the MVC for failing to create a system whereby motorists were notified by alphabet, by birth date or other criteria to facilitate the process.
Fulton released the following statement Tuesday:
“As we reopen today, MVC agencies are experiencing extraordinarily high customer volumes. In anticipation of long lines due to social distancing restrictions, agency management personnel were pre-deployed to our busiest agencies, beginning at 6 a.m., two hours before our start time. Additionally, all of our senior staff in operations are deployed to agencies to help process transactions.
"While we understand the frustration of our customers in this extremely challenging and difficult time, our employees are doing the best they can to keep everyone safe and work as efficiently as possible. Our text notification systems are working as planned, and we remind everyone that expiration dates were extended. We ask everyone to check NJMVC.gov before you go to an agency, as some customers are in line for transactions that can be done online.”
The MVC website posted a notice Tuesday advising those planning to conduct business at any MVC agency wait at least one week before doing so.
At least two agency locations were closed early yesterday because of high volume.
Sullivan said despite a high level of frustration, the crowd seemed to take it in stride; there were no reported incidents or reports of litter left behind.
Somerville Police barricaded Roosevelt Place at Union Avenue (Route 28) and Somerset County Sheriff's officers prevented people from parking in nearby commercial lots, meaning motorists were parking on side streets and walking to the MVC office, ignoring crosswalks and crossing streets where they shouldn't, Sullivan said.
Fred Wied IV, a resident of Schoolhouse Lane, said he had to "play" traffic cop at 7:30 a.m. to help his wife back out of their driveway to get to work.
The line had already backed up around the corner from Roosevelt to Schoolhouse Lane across his sidewalk.
"I thought people were waiting in line to buy tickets to a Bruce Springsteen concert, or something," he joked. "I've never seen anything like it."
Wied bumped into Sullivan while taking a walk down Roosevelt and asked what could be done.
"They (MVC) should have anticipated there would be a large crowd," Sullivan said."I'm never confident with the MVC but I was cautiously hopeful that it would at least be organized chaos.
"I was called well before 7 a.m. and when I got there people had started to form their own line and there was no MVC staff outside to direct them before the line began going down Roosevelt into the residential neighborhood.
"People were not there for the wrong reason, they were there for titles and registration; the sheer volume was just overwhelming," Sullivan said "Was there no way to pre-register: They (MVC) had five days this past week to put a dent in the backlog. How hard would it be to say, "names ending in A through E, come on Tuesday, F through K, Wednesday; maybe that would not have eliminated lines, but it would have held down the volume,"
Sullivan said he, Kevin Sluka, borough clerk, and state Sen. Kip Bateman, R-16th, all tried to contact Fulton Tuesday.
"We made multiple calls, we wanted to ask Commissioner Fulton what your plan is for tomorrow (Wednesday). We spoke to the MVC manager on site, but none of the hierarchy. He said there would be signage, but they've made promises before," Sullivan said, suggesting signs would not be provided.
Sullivan said the plan for Wednesday is to direct people forming the line outside to extend down Roosevelt Avenue in the direction of Union Avenue (Route 28), stretching east towards Van Derveer School. Sullivan said road cones and barricades would be set up along the state highway, and that parking on side streets will continue to be a problem.
"Until the MVC comes up with a reservation system or alphabetical system or birthday system, until the backlog is gone, we're going to draw crowds," Sullivan said. "We're like the guy at the end of the parade sweeping up the mess. It seems like the commissioner and the hierarchy are making this up as we go along, I'm just very unhappy that MVC resources were not visible."