Asking most drivers about a trip to the Glen Burnie headquarters of the state Motor Vehicle Administration used to be like asking Dante how he liked his trip through the Inferno.
No more. Gone from the ground floor is the brown-tan-beige color scheme that could make you queasy. Eighteen months of renovation and $5 million have turned the MVA headquarters into a more civilized and organized government office.
The ground floor now is a 40,000-square-foot, 42-window registration center that can handle 90 percent of ordinary transactions.
"The idea was to create something like a full-service branch down here and on the first floor," said David Sadiq, project manager.
Next door, the 5,000-square-foot licensing annex, which gets 450 visitors a day, has become a sleek, computerized center.
The renovation is part of a $45 million program to make the MVA a more customer-friendly bureaucracy.
The color scheme on the main floor and in the annex is blue and gray, colors chosen without regard for the Civil War, MVA officials note.
"At one time, it was going to be Pepto-Bismol pink," said Bruce L. Shifflett, assistant director for vehicle registration. Applying that much of the near Day-Glo color was ruled out.
Part of the 33-year-old building's problem is that it wasn't designed for walk-in service. It was supposed to be a mail processing center -- which it still is.
But people saw "MVA" on the building and forced the bureaucracy to change.
The result was a warren of scattered offices, a virtual maze in which customers went on wanderings of biblical proportion, searching for the right window.
For example, tag renewal was on the ground floor. Other tag business required a trip to the first floor -- except for certain tag dealings on the second floor -- and by the time customers got to the right tag office they forgot why they were even in Glen Burnie.
Cashiers were in a separate section. A single transaction required finding and waiting at several different offices, and woe to the customer who ended up in the wrong line or, even worse, the right line but with the wrong paperwork.
Now the registration cavern combines the take-a-number system of a bakery with the efficiency of a bank.
At the Document Review Counter, workers go through each customer's paperwork. If all is in order, the customer gets a number and is told to park on an industrial gray metal bench. When that number flashes overhead in red with the number of the assigned window counter, it's time to move.
Document reviewers flag most obstacles. Unpaid fines pop up on the computer.
Depending on the problem, customers might be sent home, directed to specialty counters -- one deals solely with District Court woes -- or sent upstairs to sort out financial and insurance situations.
Cruise in, cruise out
Catherine Stewart didn't have any of those problems on her recent trip to the retooled MVA headquarters. She and her 16-year-old daughter were in and out in 10 minutes, title and license plates in hand. And they only had to stop at one window.
"This is definitely better," said Ms. Stewart, who came to register her daughter Stephanie's car. "I was here years ago. We were here three hours. We went down the hall, up the steps, around the elevator, all over."
Phillip W. Johns of Catonsville agreed. Within 15 minutes of walking in, he had new plates to replace tags stolen the night before. Again, he had to stop at only one window.
The average registration time still is 30 minutes, as it was in pre-renovation days. That may change soon. Eighty clerks are getting cross-trained, Mr. Shifflett said.
About 40 percent of the walk-in registration traffic could disappear as the MVA lets more vehicle dealers process and issue permanent titles and tags.
Some 200 new-car dealers can do so through computer hookups. Nearly 2,000 used-car dealers are to come on-line in January.
Still, everyone isn't pleased.
"The service is lousy. And the chairs are really uncomfortable," said Julia R. Kaiser of Middle River. She does, however, approve of the new layout. Ms. Kaiser said she waited 2 1/2 hours for the Office of Financial Responsibility to find her files and clear her of an insurance coverage error so she could register another car.
That office is split between the first and second floors and is waiting for a new computer system. It will be consolidated on the first floor in February, said Mary L. Payne, supervisor of public service in the division.
Plans call for putting all other public offices on the first floor, leaving on the second floor only the mysterious inner workings of the MVA.