Scott Friedman, NBC 5 Investigates
Since NBC 5's investigation last summer, wait times at some Texas DPS license centers are dropping, but not all license centers are created equally.
The Texas Department of Public Safety has made big changes since last summer’s NBC 5 investigation showed customers waiting three hours or more in line; and revealed that the DPS wasn’t even counting and reporting the full amount of time people spend waiting.
This winter, DPS opened two new license Mega Centers in the DFW area, one in Garland and another in Fort Worth. During the typically busy spring break week of March 11-15, NBC 5 Investigates visited area offices and found customers pleased with their experiences at the Mega Centers.
“My experience was excellent,” said John Jackson, a Dallas attorney who recently got in and out of the Garland Mega Center in 30 minutes.
“I'm still shocked that I just got in and out of there as fast as I did,” said Ronald Phillips, who was taken care of in about five minutes.
But on the same day - not far away – NBC 5 Investigates found people still waiting for hours at old license offices.
George Martinez waited two hours at the Dallas Northwest Highway location. And at the office on Red Bird Lane, Marckus Scott said he waited about 1 hour and 25 minutes.
NBC 5 also sent staff members needing to apply for a Texas license, or renew an old one, into both traditional and DPS Mega Center license offices to see firsthand how long the waits were.
At the Fort Worth Mega Center it took one staffer only about 20 minutes.
The DPS said the average wait at the Fort Worth Mega Center from March 11-15 was just 12 minutes and 53 seconds. At the Garland Mega Center the average was 17 minutes and 8 seconds.
Meanwhile, at the old Red Bird Lane office, one of our staffers waited about 30 minutes during the same week.
At the old Garland office off Northwest Highway, NBC 5 investigative reporter Scott Friedman waited a little more than an hour.
The two busiest days at the Mega Centers, since they first opened, were on Dec. 27 and 28, when people flooded license offices after the Christmas holiday.
A DPS database obtained by NBC 5 Investigates shows some of the Mega Centers didn't do as well on those days, with the average wait time being 1 hour and 15 minutes at the four Mega Centers that were open statewide. More than 1,500 people waited an hour or more at the Mega Centers on Dec. 27 and 28. More than 600 people waited for two hours or more at the two Houston-area Mega Centers.
Mega Centers in Fort Worth and Leon Valley didn’t open until January.
The long wait times on those days raise questions about what to expect when the summer rush hits this year. In a written statement, DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said, “Given their performance thus far, we believe the Mega Centers will continue to be effective in processing customers during the peak summer months, and the addition of these six new offices position the department to serve customers in those metropolitan areas with substantially more capacity that simply was not available last summer. “
In a January interview, DPS director Steve McCraw recently said the Mega Centers are just one step in fixing the problem.
“We're not declaring victory yet. Keep in mind right, we've got a long ways to go,” said McCraw.
It will take more staff, new technology and money to improve the old offices. Right now, funding is up in the air. The Senate appropriations committee has funded a $50 million request to improve license offices, but the House committee has approved only $10 million, one-fifth of what DPS said it needs.
In one budget document NBC 5 Investigates discovered, DPS said that with current baseline funding only 38 percent of customers will be able to renew licenses in 30 minutes or less by 2015.
That means that without additional money more people could be waiting in line instead of celebrating a quick trip to the DPS.
DPS stats obtained show improvement at some of the older offices too, when compared to last year. But, as NBC 5 Investigates reported last summer, those stats are not very reliable because at the old offices the state doesn't count the amount of time people spend waiting in line to get into the building to the check in desk. That time is defined by the DPS as "pre-wait."
State budget documents also show the Texas population is expected to grow by 7 million people over the next 20 years, further adding to the challenge of keeping up with demand at license offices.
There are currently six DPS Mega Centers in Texas, four in the Houston area, two in DFW, one in Austin and one in San Antonio.