If you thought lines to renew your driver’s license were long before, get ready for possibly even longer lines – another symptom caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Records obtained by NBC 5 Investigates reveal more than a half-million driver’s licenses and state identification cards have expired during the shutdown, issued in March to battle the spread of the virus.
And most people will have to show up in person to get them renewed, we’ve learned, putting more strain on Texas’ Department of Public Safety offices, which were already overwhelmed by long waits before the pandemic hit.
From March 13 to May 31, about 417,000 driver’s licenses and 106,000 Texas I-D cards expired, according to the DPS, with at least 400,000 people not eligible to renew online.
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Offices reopened this month, but only for limited services by appointment that do not include license renewals.
A date has not been set on when offices will fully open, but there’s heightened expectations that when they do, there will be a crush of people trying to get in.
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“Oh, I can’t even imagine,” said Brandy Pearson, whose daughter Emma passed her driver’s test in May, using a third-party company authorized by DPS to give the tests.
Pearson said the company sent the paperwork into the state for Emma to get her license and, “of course, we waited and waited. And we are still waiting.”
DPS finally told them that scheduling an in-person appointment might be faster – a term that takes on a different – slower -- meaning when it comes to the issuance of driver’s licenses in Texas.
“When I tried to lookup an appointment, it was in September… the earliest we could get in,” Pearson said.
She said she dreads what will happen, even if licensing offices open up before then, with long waits, much of it spent outside in Texas’ unpredictable weather.
“There’s got to be a better way. I mean, they’ve got to figure out something,” she said.
In hopes of easing the pain, Gov. Gregg Abbott issued an order saying there would be a 60-day grace period, beginning when offices are fully opened, to renew an expired license.
Some lawmakers have grown impatient with DPS’ lingering attempts to fix the long waits, saying if a solution isn’t found soon they would consider steps to move licensing services to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles.
NBC 5 Investigates has for years reported on the public frustrations at DPS licensing centers, where people stream along sunbaked sidewalks, leading into packed waiting areas inside before finally reaching the front counter.
“It’s inexcusable and it has to change,” DPS Director Steve McCraw said in an interview with us in 2012.
Change would come in a good way, with new mega-licensing centers that were being built at the time, McCraw promised, suggesting he would step down if problems persisted after two years.
“If it’s more than two years, you’ll be talking to somebody else, okay, because I’m not a very patient person,” he told NBC 5 Investigates.
Eight years later, McCraw is still in charge, and mega-centers built to solve the problems ended up with some of the longest lines.
In the last fiscal year, records show the average wait time at the new DPS licensing center in Carrollton was three hours and fifteen minutes, the worst in the state.
In Garland, the average was two hours and fifteen minutes, and in the DFW area the average wait time clocked in at more than an hour and a half.
The DPS licensing director in 2012 told NBC 5 Investigates she felt mega-centers would be the solution to the long lines, but she acknowledged there was no formal study to back that up.
“The real proof is going to be in the pudding,” she said at that time.
Requests to interview Director McCraw or the new licensing chief for this story were declined, with a DPS spokesman saying, “We are unable to accommodate your request.
In a statement, the DPS said it “is committed to finding solutions” for the long lines, and that the new appointment scheduling system will be “a key component in helping us reduce wait times”, as offices fully re-open.
Asked how long it takes to get an appointment now, a DPS spokesman responded: “This information is not yet available on a wide-scale basis.”
Records obtained by NBC5 investigates show some progress is being made to ease the long waits, including hiring more staff with $140 million in funding from the legislature.
That, the DPS said, has helped decrease wait times in eight of the 14 mega-centers throughout the state, with Carrolton’s average down to two hours in February.
For Emma Pearson, the teenager who has passed the test, but still has no license to drive, the wait is excruciating.
“This is like the first milestone of a teenager’s life,” she said, “and it’s been disappointing.”
*Map locations are approximate, central locations for the city and are not meant to indicate where actual infected people live.