ST. PAUL — Creation of a new Minnesota computer system for vehicle registrations and titles is on track to replace the much-maligned current one, according to a report released Tuesday, Dec. 10.
However, there are risks that the project could fall behind schedule and go over budget, according to the report by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Auditor.
The report classified the risks as “minor concerns” and described the deadlines, which were imposed by the Legislature, as “ambitious.”
The report doesn’t sound major alarm bells, but will likely serve as a key update for lawmakers from both parties and Gov. Tim Walz, who are watching the project closely, knowing that if it goes south — like the current software has — they’ll all be in a pickle.
The current project aims to replace a relatively new software program that is used to process license plates and titles for every vehicle and registered boat in the state. Known as MNLARS, the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System, has become a symbol of government inefficiency and waste. When the internally-developed program went live in 2017 as a replacement to a 1980s-era legacy system, it was immediately fraught with problems, and within a year its price tag had nearly doubled to $100 million.
Last year, an independent panel convened by Walz recommended scrapping MNLARS entirely, and both he and Republican and Democratic lawmakers agreed.
The state contracted with a private company, FAST Enterprises, for about $34 million to get the new system up and running by October 2021. FAST is the same company that successfully developed Minnesota’s new computer program to process driver’s licenses, including federal Real ID-compliant licenses and IDs.
The new system will be called the Vehicle Title and Registration System, or VTRS, which insiders pronounce “VEE-truss.”
In developing VTRS, FAST has been working with the state’s information technology agency and the Department of Public Safety’s Driver and Vehicle Services division, which oversees the actual process of registering and titling vehicles. The Office of Legislative Auditor (OLA) is required under law to conduct quarterly reviews as a way of being the dispassionate eyes and ears of lawmakers.
It’s all on schedule so far, the OLA report found, and the Department of Public Safety “has gone to great lengths to foster stakeholder input.”
That’s a reference to deputy registrars who run license centers, title insurance companies, auction houses and car dealers — all groups who rely on MNLARS and claimed to have lost money as a result of its failings. Many representatives of those groups complained that MNLARS was rolled out with little feedback from them, exacerbating problems.
The OLA report identified three major risks in converting the system.
Risk 1: Lawmakers tacked on two requirements last spring that could slow things down and cost more money.
First, officials are required to research new ways to calculate registrations fees — always a sore spot for the public and one that elected officials are well aware of.
Second, developers are required to look into ways that regular folks could process some transactions at self-service kiosks or even from home.
The report noted: “Each of these new requirements could have significant technical ramifications on a project that is already underway and has an aggressive implementation timeline.”
Risk 2: The data is messy, and moving it onto the new system creates new risks.
In fact, untold numbers of Minnesotans have paid too little or too much for their vehicle tabs for years, the OLA has previously found. No one knows how bad the problems are, but the FAST project director is working on a plan.
Risk 3: They might not make all their deadlines — possibly blowing through one by a decade.
VTRS developers don’t yet have a full timeline to meet the October 2021 deadline for fully decommissioning the old systems, the report states. Specifically, the OLA found draft plans that extended the work to August 2022.
“OLA believes it may be difficult to meet a fall 2021 decommissioning date, given that development work will not be finished until October 2021,” the report states.