WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah (AP) – So packed is the parking lot at Utah’s busiest driver’s license office that on certain days people circle it endlessly in their cars, waiting to pounce on an elusive open spot. Some give up, and park illegally.
Lines of frustrated customers often stretch outside the busy office into the bitter cold. Others stream out, frequently muttering obscenities after waiting for hours – sometimes only to be told to come back another day.
A year ago, the average wait at this office was 19 minutes – lately, it’s been three or four hours at times.
“I think if we get through today it’ll be … God’s will,” said Jennifer Selvidge, who was trying to get her son’s learner’s permit on a recent afternoon. “It’s like being on a bad flight across country with three layovers and a bad movie.”
The wait-times have ballooned in part because of efforts by Utah to comply as of Jan. 1 with the federal Real ID Act by issuing driver’s licenses designed to prevent forgery – requiring verification of birth certificates, Social Security numbers and immigration status.
That new paperwork has forced many to come into the office rather than renew online or through the mail, as they once did. On top of that, Utah’s driver’s license offices have been closed on Fridays for the past year to save money and the state shuttered six traveling offices in rural areas because they didn’t comply with security requirements under the new law.
The long lines have left Republican Gov. Gary Herbert scrambling for ways to reduce waits, while one state lawmaker is pushing for the state to stop adhering to the Real ID Act, potentially joining about a dozen others who have refused to comply since the act was passed in 2005.
“People are saying ‘Why are we having to do this?’ They’re upset at the state, they’re upset at the governor. But really this is something that truly has been dictated upon us by the federal government,” said Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem. “To have this is really quite onerous.”
Utah is one of nine states where driver’s licenses can’t be renewed online or through the mail, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. It isn’t clear how many of those states require in-person renewals in an effort to comply with Real ID.
Lawmakers in other states have noted that fully complying with the act likely would require more workers or longer wait times. In Nevada, there were warnings in 2007 that 196 additional DMV employees would be needed and that some offices would have to remain open longer to meet the new requirments. Lawmakers opted out of the plan, in hopes Congress might repeal the act.
What has made Utah’s situation so severe is that 30 percent of eligible motorists had been renewing their licenses online or through the mail until January. The state had been aggressively pushing online renewals since mid-2008, when former Gov. Jon Huntsman ordered nearly all state offices closed on Fridays to conserve energy and cut utility bills.
At that time, the state extended hours Monday through Thursday, and combined with the online renewals, wait times at driver’s license offices dropped.
But when state lawmakers debated a bill last year to put the new requirements in place, not once did anyone mention that lines could grow. The focus was on making sure illegal immigrants couldn’t get driver’s licenses; the measure passed unanimously.
Lawmakers provided no funding to hire additional staff to handle the increased workload and there was no discussion about keeping driver’s license offices open on Fridays.
The lack of planning has frustrated those who have had to take a day off work or school to wait for hours with no guarantee of ever being served.
“It’s really a pain in the butt,” said Jerry Green, who had been waiting for nearly four hours at a Salt Lake City office to get his commercial driver’s license after moving here from Helena, Mont. “They should go back to make it more convenient for the public.”
Herbert is attempting to ease statewide congestion by opening one office on Fridays beginning next week, at a cost of $200,000 a year. He has said customers shouldn’t have to wait more than 10 minutes to be served.
He’s considering opening more offices on Fridays, although he hasn’t said how he would pay for it at a time the state is facing a $700 million budget shortfall.
This week, a new policy was also put in place allowing those renewing their licenses to get a temporary one if they don’t have the necessary documents to prove citizenship, said Department of Public Safety spokesman Jeff Nigbur. Many people had been waiting in line for hours only to be told the same documents they used to renew their licenses in previous years weren’t enough anymore.
Drivers License Division staff are also getting more accustomed to a new computer system. Nigbur says wait times will improve as the public becomes more aware of the new requirements.
That’s little comfort to those who have spent hours in line.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Ben Mason, a University of Utah student who skipped a class and waited two hours to get a Utah driver’s license after moving here from Boise, Idaho. “As soon as I got here and the lines were bad I wished I had brought my homework or a book because it was pretty brutal.”
On the Web: Utah Driver License Division http://publicsafety.utah.gov/dld/index.html