A long-delayed computer system upgrade at the state Division of Motor Vehicles is still not going well.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee's administration, which inherited the project when he took office in 2011, has attempted to guide it across the finish line.

Under revised contract terms reached in 2013, the system was to officially "go live" on May 5. But the administration now says it needs more time.

"We will not meet that date," Richard Licht, Chafee's director of administration, told lawmakers at a recent State House hearing. "I wish I could say we have it well at hand. ... That project has not gone as well as anyone would have liked to have seen it go. We aren't satisfied yet."

Lawmakers, who approved the project in 2006, are not pleased, either.

"This has been going on for years," state Rep. Eileen Naughton, D-Warwick, said at the House Finance Committee hearing where the project was discussed. "It has miserably failed."

The DMV upgrade was meant to replace a computer system that was already more than 20 years old in 2006.

That system is critical to all the day-to-day work of the agency: maintaining licenses, registrations and titles, as well as tracking accidents, emission test results and more.

The project was financed with a $1.50 surcharge on DMV transactions, a fee that has collected almost $13 million since it was first imposed, according to Licht.

Those fees have helped cover the project's ballooning costs: it was originally contracted for $8.8 million but is now approaching $16 million.

On Friday, Licht said the administration and its contractor, Hewlett-Packard, still have not determined what the "root cause" of the problem is at this point. He said the administration hopes to update lawmakers in about 30 days.

At the very least, the state has an idea how things got to this point.

As The Providence Journal reported in September, a part of the problem was that the state failed to keep close tabs on the project's progress through major changes at the DMV -- including the opening of its new headquarters in Cranston -- as well as ownership changes at Saber Software, the Portland, Ore., company awarded the original contract. (Today, the company is part of Hewlett-Packard but under a different name.)

"We inherited this," Licht said. "We're going to do the best we can with it. We've invested an inordinate amount of time on it. But we're not happy at all."

He says the administration is conferring regularly with top Hewlett-Packard officials.

One of the things they are considering is updating parts of the old computer system. Certain improvements could, theoretically, help the system last another three to five years, Licht told lawmakers recently.

"We shouldn't have to be in this position," he added. The old system is "still here and it's still functioning. But it's fragile."

Meanwhile, Chafee, who is not running for reelection, is seeking more funding this year to upgrade IT infrastructure in other areas of state government.

In his proposed $8.5-billion budget for the year starting July 1, Chafee calls for a dozen projects worth $30 million. If approved by lawmakers, the projects would result in an annual debt service of $3.9 million over 10 years, according to the House Fiscal Advisory Staff.

"The governor has talked a lot about infrastructure since he's been elected," Licht told the House Finance Committee. "The infrastructure of the 21st century is technology, and the state of Rhode Island is woefully behind. We've made great strides, but we have a ways to go."

The proposed projects include a new case management system for the court system ($4 million), a new payroll system ($4 million) and a new budgeting and "grants management" system ($2 million).

Other projects would upgrade electronic birth records systems at the Department of Health, bring electronic permitting systems to the Department of Environmental Management and new medical record and patient case management systems to the state's psychiatric hospital, Eleanor Slater.

"We're very paper intensive," Licht said. "We're just archaic. Some of this is going to change that and bring us into a sensible world where state workers can be working on important things."

This year's proposed spending comes on top of the nearly $95 million in statewide IT projects that lawmakers have authorized in the past 10 years, according to the House Fiscal Advisory Staff.

In 2012 alone, lawmakers approved $45.3 million in spending for IT-related initiatives: $25 million for a new state tax system and another $20.3 million for wireless Internet technology in local schools.

The other big year for IT spending was 2006, when lawmakers approved $49.6 million for projects, including the DMV upgrade.

According to the House Fiscal Advisory Staff, four of those projects have been completed: a court system technology upgrade (different from the one now being proposed) as well as upgrades to state internet servers and emails, taxation databases and classroom technology at the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College.

A project to bring "web licensing capability" to the Department of Business Regulation is in its final phase, the House staff said.

Licht, testifying before House Finance, assured lawmakers that those and other IT investments they've approved in recent years have brought measured improvements in state services.

His only qualification? The DMV project.

"I hope everyone can put that in a box and isolate it as something that isn't great," Licht said. "But all the other technology things we're doing are."

©2014 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)