A few years ago, a New York Times columnist reported that Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in line. And most of that time, of course, is spent in driver’s license offices.
Okay, that’s not true. But long wait times for driver’s license services have been an ongoing problem in Texas as well as most other states. For years now, the Texas Legislature has worked with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), which administers the state’s driver’s license program, to address waiting times and other issues that continue to frustrate Texas residents.
About 23.7 million Texans — nearly 83 percent of the state’s population — hold a Texas driver’s license or a DPS-issued identification card. In fiscal 2018, DPS’ Driver License Division completed nearly 7.5 million transactions involving licenses and identification cards, including issuance, renewals and replacements.
Between 2010 and 2018, Texas’ population increased by nearly 3.6 million. This rapid growth is putting significant pressure on many government services, and driver’s licenses are no exception.
Adding to the problem is human nature, specifically the tendency to put off chores until the last minute. Despite the availability of internet, mail and phone options for license renewal, nearly 80 percent of DPS’ driver’s license customers still show up in person to conduct business. That amounted to nearly 5.9 million face-to-face transactions in fiscal 2018.
In Texas, those seeking an initial driver’s license must appear in person at a DPS driver’s license office. Applicants must present proofs of identity, U.S. citizenship or legal resident status and Texas residency as well as a Social Security number. They also must provide a thumbprint, have their picture taken and pass a vision exam.
Driver’s licenses may be renewed online (if not yet expired), by telephone or by mail as well as at DPS offices.
Issuing millions of security-sensitive documents each year has been an ongoing challenge for DPS, and its Driver License Division continually struggles to meet performance measures set by the Legislature — as well as the expectations of Texas residents. DPS’ goal is to complete at least three-quarters of its driver’s license office transactions within 45 minutes, but the agency hasn’t met this target. In fact, despite the creation of several large driver’s license “mega-centers” in urban areas to meet demand, average wait times continue to rise.
DPS operates a statewide license call center that receives more than 24,000 calls a day or nearly 7 million each year, but its performance has declined. In 2009, 65 percent of callers to the DPS call center gave up before their calls were answered; those who persevered waited on hold for an average of 13.5 minutes. In 2017, 80 percent of callers gave up before DPS answered, and on-hold times for those who got through averaged 14 minutes and 20 seconds.
DPS attributes these difficulties mainly to population growth and inadequate staffing. In January 2019 testimony before the Texas Senate Finance Committee, DPS Director Steve McCraw said the problem could be solved by additional staffing in driver’s license offices; increased funding for staff salaries to retain trained personnel; and an extension of the driver’s license expiration period.
McCraw also pointed out that many driver’s license customers are not taking full advantage of the services DPS offers by mail, telephone or online, saying that “53 percent of the people who come to the [DPS driver’s license] office don’t need to be there.”
Lawmakers and legislative agencies have worked with DPS to address delays for a decade. Since fiscal 2009, the annual budget for DPS’ driver’s license services has nearly tripled, while the number of full-time-equivalent (FTE) employees assigned to provide these services has increased almost ninefold. Yet appropriations continue to fall below the level DPS estimates it needs.
In 2011, the Legislature established a Driver License Improvement Plan (DLIP) with initial funding of $64.1 million. By the end of fiscal 2019, total DLIP appropriations through four legislative sessions had reached $443.1 million (Exhibit 1).
DLIP funding has been used primarily to create and expand driver’s license offices and to hire new employees to staff them (Exhibit 2). Of 41 new driver’s license offices opened between fiscal 2012 and 2019, 13 were mega-centers, each designed to process at least 2,000 transactions per day with 25 or more staff members. Due to a directive from state leaders calling for agency budget cuts, however, DPS closed two driver’s license offices during the 2018-19 biennium.
|Total, Fiscal 2012-19||$443.1 million|
Source: Legislative Budget Board
|LEGISLATURE/ BIENNIUM||MEGA-CENTERS OPENED||OTHER OFFICES OPENED||OFFICES RELOCATED/ REMODELED||NEW OFFICE STAFFING*|
|TOTAL, FISCAL 2012-2019||13||28||86||547.3|
* Full-time-equivalent employees.
** Reflects agency budget cuts in the 2018-19 biennium.
Source: Texas Department of Public Safety
The 2019 Legislature appropriated $490.6 million for DPS’ Driver License Program in fiscal 2020 and 2021, $212.4 million more than it received for the previous biennium (Exhibit 3) — but only about half of what DPS requested. About two-thirds of this amount will be used to hire an additional 762 full-time-equivalent employees; the remainder will fund new driver’s license offices and provide pay raises for staff members.
DPS was subject to Sunset review in 2019. Senate Bill 616, the DPS Sunset bill, was signed into law in June. This new law fulfills one DPS recommendation by extending driver’s license expiration dates from six to eight years. It also requires a third-party study on the feasibility of transferring DPS’ driver’s license program to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TDMV), which currently handles vehicle registrations and dealer regulation.
This would place the driver’s license function where most expect it to be — 42 other states assign driver licensing to motor vehicle departments — and allow DPS to focus on its primary mission of police work. As the Sunset Advisory Commission noted, TDMV already “has a division dedicated to consumer relations and receives high customer satisfaction ratings.”
|NEW DRIVER’S LICENSE OFFICES||$19.6|
|ADDITIONAL STAFFING (762 FTEs)||141.5|
Source: Legislative Budget Board
Texas certainly isn’t alone in its efforts to improve service in its driver’s license offices; many other states are facing the same problems.
Some states including California are experiencing long lines and backlogs in their driver’s license offices as they implement changes needed to comply with federal REAL ID requirements. REAL ID, established in 2005 to strengthen security features on state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards, requires driver’s license customers to show up in person with several documents. Texas’ current new and renewal licenses comply with REAL ID requirements, but many other states are scrambling to meet the new standards by the October 2020 deadline.
Other states working to cut driver’s license wait times are using some of the same strategies as Texas DPS, including increased staffing, online service options and extended expiration dates. At present, 31 states including Texas offer online license renewal, and beginning on June 1, 2020, Texas will join 17 other states in extending license expiration periods to eight years or longer. Other solutions being explored may be useful in Texas.
Saturday office hours: In April 2019, Alabama began a pilot project that offers certain driver’s license services — including first driver’s license issuance, out-of-state transfers and testing — on Saturdays, allowing customers to visit without taking time off from work.
Mobile stations: In Kansas, as in most states, summer is peak time for new driver’s license applications. The Kansas Department of Revenue has established summer-only driver’s license stations in temporary offices such as schools specifically to serve teens.
Technological upgrades: A number of states have adopted new technologies and re-engineered their business processes for driver’s license issuance. The new systems make it simpler to offer online transactions and often result in faster counter service for walk-up customers. Pennsylvania’s program uses its website to post current wait times at its offices, so that customers can choose the best time and place to arrive. Still other states are using new computer systems to perform sophisticated data analyses that can pinpoint problems and deploy resources more effectively.
In addition, improvements to call center and website infrastructure could reduce the number of Texans relying on face-to-face transactions at driver’s license offices.
Once the study required by SB 616 is completed next year, state policymakers will have a better idea of what actions are needed to solve Texas’ driver’s license problems. Whether these will involve operational changes within DPS or simply moving the entire program to TDMV remains to be seen.
As DPS Director McCraw told the Senate Finance Committee, “The state of Texas should be the best at everything it does. Certainly Texans deserve it. And you expect it.” FN