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Long lines and computer backups on eve of higher fees for car tags, drivers' licenses

Racing to beat the clock on steep increases in motor vehicle fees, motorists jammed driver's license offices Monday in a case of human gridlock as bad as anything on Florida's congested highways.

The stampede so overwhelmed the state that it was forced to temporarily shut down the Web site that handles online license and car tag renewals.

To mollify people trying to escape increases effective today, the state gave county tax collectors a 10-day grace period to renew tag and license fees at the old rates for customers who made the effort but were stymied by computer breakdowns.

"They're all competing for access to the same database," said Dave Westberry of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. "We need to focus on the system being as stable as possible."

The crush of motorists began Friday, when 873,000 people used the online system, more than twice the 330,000 users on a recent Friday, Westberry said.

Ironically, the agency for years has tried to redirect drivers from its offices to the Internet because it's more convenient and to shorten lines at field offices.

"We'll take care of them. It's the right thing to do," Westberry said.

Legislators approved the fee increases in May to balance the state budget without having to impose across-the-board tax increases. They justified the fee hikes by saying many had not gone up in two decades.

The real sticker shock could come today, when drivers face the higher fees for the first time.

The cost to renew a driver's license will increase from $20 to $48. Tag fees on average will increase from $36 to $58. The cost of a first-time registration was $100; now it's $225. People with birthdays before Nov. 30 were eligible to renew now to avoid the added cost.

"Why couldn't they wait until the recession is over?" registered nurse Carolina Gonzalez asked as she waited about an hour in Miami to renew the license plate on her Nissan Sentra. "I mean, there's lots of people without jobs. This is the completely wrong time to do this to people."

Hundreds of thousands of people jammed the agency's Web site at www.flhsmv.gov, and in yet another reflection of the state's dire economy, people stood in line for hours to save about $25.

Lines at offices in Pinellas and Hillsborough began forming an hour before they opened Monday. At the tag office on Starkey Road in Largo, people waited in line for a half-hour just to get a ticket to get in line, and then waited 90 minutes more for service.

At the West Shore AAA office, which handles tag and license renewals, people who were in line at 8 a.m. were still waiting almost three hours later. A groan went up among people lined up outside when a representative announced that the computers were down. One AAA employee stood in the parking lot directing traffic.

Brian Curry of Seminole Heights in Tampa has been trying since Thursday to renew his father's license and registration. A frustrated Curry said Monday he was told to mail in the payment instead.

Lines grew at the seven renewal centers in Pinellas County before the doors opened at 8 a.m. The staff processed 693 customers in the first 75 minutes, said Tillie Blocker, deputy of licensing and service. Normally the offices would process about 100 to 200 in that time, she said.

"People have been pretty good," she said. "I've been talking with employees. Customers really are understanding, but they want the service. They are pretty much willing to camp out and wait for it, like an airport."

The new fees are expected to generate more than $800 million this year and $1 billion next year. The money flows into the state general revenue fund that pays for everything from teacher salaries to food in state prisons.

The gridlock comes as the agency has been working to overcome a reputation for slow and at times sullen service. Its values begin with "we believe in service by exceeding expectations." A few years ago, the agency launched its own charm offensive, turning to Publix and the Walt Disney Co. to teach its clerks how to be nicer to drivers.

Times staff writers Kim Wilmath, Brant James and Emily Nipps contributed to this report, which uses information from the Associated Press.

FAST FACTS

Where you might feel it

Here are some of the major motor vehicle fee changes that take effect today:

$48 Cost of original driver's license, up from $27.

$48 Cost of license renewal, up from $20.

$25 Cost of a replacement license, up from $10.

For a complete list of state fees, go to links.tampabay.com.

Long lines and computer backups on eve of higher fees for car tags, drivers' licenses 08/31/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 11:58pm]
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