DALLAS — Shane Washington arrived at a driver’s license mega center in South Dallas around 3:30 p.m. one day last month. After a few days of unsuccessfully trying to use the office’s online queuing system to reserve a spot in line, he finally stopped by without a reservation ahead of the July 4 holiday.
Washington, 42, was scheduled to pick his son up from relatives that evening. But when 5:45 p.m. came and he found himself still waiting in the office, he had to push back those plans, inconveniencing both his family and himself.
“It’s just stressful to be dealing with,” Washington said. “It’s hard to block off an entire day.”
Long waits for customers like Washington at driver’s license centers aren’t uncommon throughout the state. A 2018 report showed the Texas Department of Public Safety wasn’t meeting its processing time goals for customers and that already lengthy wait times were only getting longer.
To combat that, state lawmakers gave DPS a $212 million funding boost in the 2020-21 budget, over two-thirds of which will be used to hire an additional 762 employees at driver’s license offices. DPS spokesperson Katherine Cesinger said 94 of the department’s 229 offices — including every mega center and “severely crowded” office — will become fully staffed, while another 100 will receive smaller personnel boosts.
For customers, that should mean lower wait periods and more available appointments for driver’s license tests once the new employees begin working toward the end of the year, Cesinger said.
About $50 million will also go toward reclassifying some customer service staffers as license permit specialists and boosting their pay, which Cesinger said will soon be reflected in employee paychecks.
Yet despite potential fixes on the horizon, some customers said they aren’t convinced wait times will drop long-term. Erika King, 39, said each time she’s visited a south Austin DPS office, her wait has extended past an hour and a half.
Regardless of what the department tries, King said she expects that to continue.
“They always say they have a new way to fix this b.s. but they’ve tried this before,” she said, “and it hasn’t worked.”
Seven years ago, DPS mega centers were funded with $63 million earmarked for building six offices and hiring 266 employees. At the time, customers were told wait times would be reduced to 30 minutes or less. But years later, some spend up to eight hours at busier locations. Since then, the Legislature has poured over $400 million into the department to lower wait times in attempts that, up to now, haven’t worked.
Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who was on the conference committee that added the funding to DPS’ 2020-21 budget, called the wait times a “chronic and unresolved problem.”
“The money doesn’t do you any good unless you have the personnel to get the job done,” Bettencourt said. “They need to start looking at hiring more part-time, since it doesn’t matter how you get people as long as you get good service.”
By December 2020, DPS will build and staff two new driver’s license offices — projected to cost up to $8 million for each — in Angleton, about 45 miles south of Houston, and Denton, north of the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area.
The department will also run a three-month trial next year to determine whether longer operating hours could help curb long lines. At four yet-to-be-selected urban and rural driver’s license offices, weekday hours will be extended to 9 p.m. and the department will produce a report on the results.
Longer evening hours could help customers like Heather Hall, 26, who stopped by the Pflugerville mega center outside of Austin two times in three weeks to get her license renewed. Since she was having a “rough day” when her previous photo was taken, Hall said she wanted to stop by in-person for a new one. But after leaving work early to arrive — and encountering hour-plus long waits both times — she eventually resigned herself to renewing online since she didn’t want to still be in the office at closing.
She also didn’t believe the funding would alleviate long waits.
“If something’s broken,” Hall said, “you can’t just throw money into it and expect it to be better.”
But over the past few years, the department has hit obstacles when trying to fix issues in other ways. When, following recommendations, the state agency proposed closing 87 “inefficient” offices last year, plans were ultimately axed after projected rises in travel times for service sparked customer pushback.
As the department’s searches for ways to speed up visits continue coming up futile, constituents have tightened pressure on lawmakers — and that’s triggered tension between DPS and the Capitol. Earlier this year, even Gov. Greg Abbott weighed in on the issue.
“The way DPS has handled driver’s licenses in the state of Texas is despicable, and it has been non-responsive,” Abbott said at a March news conference.
There has also been a debate over whether it’s possible for the program to run efficiently under DPS at all, after a report by the state’s Sunset Commission — which routinely reviews state agencies for efficiency — suggested otherwise.
Over 40 states run driver’s license programs through their respective Department of Motor Vehicles. Since Texas does not, included in the new budget is $1 million for DPS to conduct a feasibility study around moving the driver’s license program to the DMV. If it’s not submitted by Sept. 1, 2020, the system will automatically transfer the following September.
State DMV spokesperson Adam Shaivitz said in an email statement that if transferred, the department would make the driver’s license program its “top priority.”
And Bettencourt said if the funding DPS received this legislative session can’t produce changes, that’s exactly what will happen.
“I don’t want any excuses,” Bettencourt said. “Either this gets done right by DPS, or someone else will have to do it.”
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