Ask D.C. residents in a poll to cite their best and worst experiences with D.C. government, and some will say trash, pro and con. Some will talk about the police. Others will mention housing or tax collection.
But no agency seems to ignite a more passionate response than a relatively tiny one based at 301 C St. NW that doesn't do any more than shuffle paper and administer tests.
Of course: the Bureau of Motor Vehicle Services.
Measured by percentages, the bureau was only the second-worst service of 11 examined by The Washington Post in its poll of 1,505 D.C. residents. Top -- or bottom -- honors went to the condition of city streets.
But when encouraged to go beyond simple ratings and tell stories about their experiences with the city, only a few mentioned streets. Dozens upon dozens, however, mentioned the Bureau of Motor Vehicle Services, apparently more than any other service.
Part of the reason, no doubt, is that no resident who drives -- rich or poor, black or white -- can escape the bureau. Everyone must go there for a driver's license. Everyone must go to register a car or have it inspected. Everyone has a story about it. "They cite it," said Larry Greenberg, the bureau chief, "because it is a service for which they have to come in person and conduct business."
Beyond that, the bureau has suffered from budget cuts that at one point last year kept it from filling almost a third of its 210 positions. There were fewer people to process paper, which meant there were more people waiting in line, which meant shorter tempers, which meant unhappiness all around.
"My lasting impression of the Motor Vehicles Department is that it is slow, stupid, nasty, totally inexperienced," Dulcy Bonciolini, 39, who works for a law firm, told the pollsters. "If I had to do it all over again, I'd sell the car and take the bus. It was a completely demoralizing situation and I wish it on no one."
"Any time you go down there it's an all-day affair," said Renee Rochester, 28, of Northwest. "It's frustrating to stand in line for hours and hours. It is frustrating to speak with people who don't speak to you intelligently." Plus, she said, "parking is atrocious."
"I called the Motor Vehicle Department and was put on hold and hung up on," said Valerie Lynn, 63, a psychotherapist. "When I called back, the line was busy. When I finally got through, I got the impression they were having a party down there."
Yet many of those polled cited the bureau not as their worst experience, but as their best.
"They've been helpful and polite and the longest I've waited is about 20 minutes," said Ferguise E. Mayronne, 67, a retired federal worker who lives in Northwest. "My first experience was horrible, but since then they've improved tremendously."
"Renewing a driver's license, I just walked in and I was out in 20 minutes," said Terrence Campbell, 39, of Northwest. "Everybody was pretty efficient; not terribly friendly, but efficient. It was basically a smooth experience."
Greenberg said his agency elicited both condemnation and praise because drivers' experiences will vary greatly depending on the time of day or day of the week. The bureau has long encouraged people to avoid Monday and Friday, for example, when lines tend to build.
In addition, the bureau opened a satellite office in Northeast last fall in an effort to reduce the crush downtown. It also added workers at the downtown office. Those steps, said Greenberg, might account for many of the favorable reviews.
Greenberg said residents could make matters still better by not coming to the bureau to renew their auto tags or residential parking permits. Those tasks can be done by mail, yet many residents still do them in person, Greenberg said.
In an interview, however, Mayor Marion Barry said the city's deteriorating finances will soon force more staffing cuts. The public will see there is no fat in government, he said, "when the lines get long around down at Motor Vehicles, as they are going to get."