MVC’s computer system lags behind other states. Catching up is a costly ordeal that lasts for decades.

The State Motor Vehicle Commission computer system is a system that drivers love to hate.

When it works, they don’t notice it. When it fails and shuts down business at the agencies, the system inspires words suitable for an R-rated film. A bright side of the MVC’s tumultuous reopening of agencies last month was that there weren’t the IT glitches. statewide cripples of the past.

But to give New Jersey drivers the online features they want and that other states offer – and to potentially reduce the wait times that have plagued agencies since they reopened – this system needs a major upgrade, said a computer expert.

The road to improve it has been tortuous. MVC officials have said they have abandoned expensive and delayed mega-projects of the past.

Other auto departments across the country are now offering more online services than an improved commuter system could technically make possible in New Jersey.

They include appointments, the ability to create an online account to titrate and register a vehicle online and receive license plates by mail, the ability to print temporary license labels at home, to pass a written home-based driving test online, to initiate the driver’s license application process.

The old computer system has been an excuse for not offering more online services for years, said a former lawmaker and head of the Assembly’s transport committee.

“Our computer system can’t handle these kinds of changes, it’s an old system … it was a constant refrain,” former Assembly member John Wisniewski said, hearing from officials of motor vehicles since taking office in 1996.

“We were home to the Bell Labs… we sell the state as a technology corridor and we have an abacus for the computer system,” Wisniewski said. He supports the formation of a state technology task force to update government computer systems “starting with the MVC”.

The MVC database still uses the state’s mainframe, said William Connolly, a spokesperson for MVC. It is the same central system that is responsible for the problems processing unemployment claims for hundreds of thousands of unemployed applicants due to the coronavirus.

Now he is handling thousands of MVC transactions after the branches reopened six weeks ago. But the mainframe isn’t too outdated or too old to maintain and is up to the task, Connolly said.

“The mainframe itself – which is part of the overall processing architecture – is current generation and offers significant speed, security and data storage,” said Connolly. “The modernization of the MVC family of systems is underway and will continue in a modular, component-by-component fashion. “

Attempts to upgrade MVC’s computers began 15 years ago and dragged on for 10 of those years as contracts bounced from vendor to vendor and ultimately ended in a $ 30 million settlement. dollars with Hewlett-Packard in 2015 after many delays and changes.

What the MVC got for $ 16 million from the contract settlement included upgrades to document scanning, new software and hardware, and servers. The remaining $ 14 million was spent in part on a project in 2016 to remove certain functions from the mainframe, but does not entirely replace that system, officials said. Some work has been put on hold to upgrade MVC computer systems for two federally mandated projects, including Real ID driver’s licenses.

Some recent enhancements allow clients to complete 20 MVC forms online, rather than at a branch. A client text messaging system was deployed when branches reopened on July 7.

Other new initiatives could be revealed when the MVC’s 2021 budget proposal is presented in late August, Connolly said.

But Wisniewski is not optimistic. Updating computers has been a problem for decades, due to funding, technology and politics, he said.

One of the biggest hurdles is that the MVC doesn’t keep all the money it collects.

The MVC collected a total of $ 1.2 billion in revenue in fiscal 2019, but kept only $ 420 million to fund its own operations, according to the MVC’s budget. The rest went to other state departments, statutory programs, and the general state treasury.

With the state’s current economic woes having prompted the Murphy administration to borrow up to $ 10 billion to run the state after tax revenues fell due to the coronavirus, officials may be more dependent on MVC revenues for the general treasury, said Wisniewski.

“They (the state) have to borrow $ 10 million to keep the lights on,” he said. “It absolutely puts more pressure on the MVC to send more money to the general treasury.”

In the most recent budget, about $ 11.3 million was set aside for computer system upgrades and improvements, Connolly said, and about $ 5 million for salaries and benefits for employees at the l State responsible for upgrades and improvements of all systems.

Individual components are often upgraded or replaced separately. Sometimes a wholesale replacement or modernization takes place, Connolly said. Typically, mainframe upgrades should provide faster or additional processing speed or capacity.

But some experts say mainframes are not equipped to handle complex tasks, such as downloading images.

“Usually they need something else. A mainframe is set up to handle traditional tabular records, such as driver’s license (numbers) and addresses, ”said Kurt Rohloff, founding director of the New Jersey Institute of Technology Cybersecurity Research Center. “Bigger, complex data, like an image, is more difficult to integrate into existing systems. They need to be replaced or increased.

Augmenting the mainframe with other equipment would be easier to add more functions, Rohloff said. But that comes with the security risk of allowing other people more access.

“When a system is more interactive, more people have access to it and more people are interested in it,” he said. “Allowing access could be exploited by adversaries and that would require greater security.”

Some online services offered in other states require an in-person visit by law, Connolly said. Others are not offered to identify and prevent fraud, he said.

Rohloff said one solution would be to hire a professional cloud-based IT company to manage motor vehicle services.

“It’s a reasonable argument to say that cloud-based computers can be more secure if the systems don’t allow more access,” Rohloff said. “It comes with tradeoffs. For very sensitive files, I would hesitate, unless it has a completely professional management.

Funding is also an issue that can block upgrading a computer system or hiring professionals to operate it, he said.

“(In) a frugal state you might not see the political will to spend large sums of money updating a system, when there are so many other things worth doing. spend, ”he said.

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Larry Higgs can be reached at [email protected].

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Gordon K. Morehouse