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Minn. confronts botched rollout of new vehicle registration system

ST. PAUL—The "utter failure of a rollout" began in July. On Monday came the apologies.

"As the Commissioner of Public Safety I apologize to you and to the people of Minnesota and to our stakeholders and business partners," said Commissioner Mona Dohman, who oversees the state's vehicle registrations, drivers licenses and other related areas. "We'll do better."

Dohman was apologizing for the trouble-ridden debut of the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System, a $90 million computer system for managing vehicle licenses and registrations.

On Monday afternoon Sept. 11, Dohman and other officials involved in the "MNLARS" rollout faced criticism at a legislative committee from lawmakers in both parties, such as Rep. Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, who called it an "utter failure," but also from Minnesota citizens affected by the "glitches."

"It's just so frustrating that we can't get this system working more quickly," said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who also apologized to Minnesotans for not doing a better job of legislative oversight.

Registration problems

Since MNLARS's late July debut, consumers at many license bureau stations have experienced lines of as long as two hours.

Other consumers told lawmakers Monday that they had run into glitches, such as being over- or under-billed or the new system not recognizing that they had transferred a license to a new car.

Jay Pernu of Lake Elmo received a notice about his vehicle registration being suspended during a weeks-long struggle to register his new car.

"Tomorrow my vehicle registration is suspended. I'm not sure if my license is revoked," Pernu told lawmakers in a hearing room near the Capitol, before joking that he "took back roads to get here."

Also frustrated are auto dealers and the deputy registrars who process vehicle licenses and tabs.

Deputy registrars complained about losing business because of the problems, and blamed the Department of Public Safety for not offering sufficient training in the new system. Auto dealers told of massive delays processing paperwork for car sales.

"Since MNLARS launched, many of our dealers have yet to see a title produced," said Amber Backhaus of the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association.

All these problems have costs. Many deputy registrars have been paying overtime to staff to handle the long lines, while car dealers are paying late fees and accumulating inventory they can't sell. The state issued more than 1.4 million vehicle titles and 7 million vehicle registrations in 2016.

Malfunction causes

State lawmakers said they understand that MNLARS, as a huge $90 million software project, was going to have some issues once it debuted.

"We didn't expect this to be a perfect rollout," said Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar.

And some of the extra work deputy registrars have seen is intentional. Under the old system, state employees had to do data entry for vehicle registrations. MNLARS has deputy registrars do that at the counter.

But observers said MNLARS' issues have been more serious, and lasted longer, than they hoped.

Officials with DPS and Minnesota IT Services said Monday that they had made a number of mistakes in developing MNLARS, including poor training of deputy registrars and not being responsive to the public once issues arose.

They also said that some of the missing features were deliberately not ready, as part of the state's software development strategy.

"The system by design did not have all functionality at launch," said Paul Meekin, the chief business technology officer at MN.IT. "To ship a system following modern development practices, you have to pick a point and you have to pick the features you're going to have in your first release."

Critics said the problems with MNLARS were known well before its debut. The dealers association asked for a rollout delay in January but was rebuffed.

Officials also said that for future big tech projects they'll try to roll out updates in stages instead of switching over the whole state at once.

Slow improvement

MNLARS has fixed some of its initial issues over the past eight weeks — but others remain, frustrating consumers, car dealers and registrars alike.

"To the agency's credit, they have been working around the clock to fix the problem and are making progress on several fronts," said Backhaus of the dealers association. "That being said, two months into MNLARS, it is far from reaching its stated goals."

Improvements were necessary because the old mainframe system that MNLARS replaced is seen as unsalvageable.

"We are committed to this system," Torkelson said. "Turning back the clock to the old system is not possible or practical."

An update planned for later this month is supposed improve electronic title registration and calculating costs, along with other system improvements. Later this year the state plans another major update addressing a variety of rarer cases, including motorcycle plates, law enforcement memorial plates, and a new electronic vehicle surcharge.

But looming over all of this is a big deadline for next year.

That's because the second half of the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System is supposed to go online next year: drivers licenses. That 2018 software upgrade could come right as hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans try to upgrade their licenses to comply with federal Real ID requirements. The state issued 1.8 million driver's licenses and identification cards in 2016.

"Everything we have going on right now is a balance between what we have going with motor vehicle, to keep that going, and our ongoing activities to deliver Real ID ... next October," said Meekin at MN.IT.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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