Can $63 Million Shorten Driver License Lines?

NBC 5 investigation examines state’s plan to build six "megacenters" across Texas

After years of not having money to address problems, the Texas Department of Public Safety recently got $63 million from the Legislature to build six "megacenters" to try to shorten driver-license lines.

Two centers with 81 new employees are expected to open in the Dallas-Fort Worth area by January 2013.

Currently, DPS Driver License Offices in the DFW area often have long lines, packed waiting rooms and frustrated people.

"It took me three hours waiting, and I had a job interview at five," James Kleinschmidt said. "I actually had to just leave."

At a first glance, the state's plan makes sense -- with open more counters to serve people, wait times should go down.

But there are 15 license offices around the Metroplex with long lines, and only two new buildings are planned -- one in Garland and the other in Fort Worth.

Would a new office in Fort Worth really end long lines in places such as Plano, which is 50 miles from Fort Worth and has afternoon lines that often spill into the parking lot in the Texas heat?

"I believe it will contribute," said Rebecca Davio, one of the top DPS officials in charge of the license offices.

In an interview with the NBC 5 Investigates team, Davio suggested that people will drive miles in search of a shorter line.

"They're going to hear your story about there being new offices, and they'll want to go see that and go [to] the brand-new, shiny office, and they'll go over there," Davio said. "They won't go to the other offices."

But even if that works, there's one other complication. DFW's population is growing fast and is on track to add another 650,000 people within the next five years.

Would the two megacenters just help maintain the current wait times instead of reducing them as much as the state hopes?

The lines at many DPS offices are already getting worse. DPS statistics obtained by NBC 5 Investigates show that visit times at eight out of the 15 DFW offices were longer in June 2012 than in June 2011.

NBC 5 Investigates obtained a DPS "business analysis" report that shows the agency extensively studied where to put the megacenters but is less definitive on how the facilities could affect the long lines.

The report concludes that the mega license offices "will likely improve driver's license division services" in the DFW area. The report also says they "may alter customer demand at nearby, existing driver's license offices."

Davio admitted that the state does not have a study that proves how the new buildings would solve the problem of long lines.

"I do not have a study," she said. "We have evaluated it. We have looked at it, but I do not have a study that I can give to you right now. The real proof is going to be in the pudding."

Indiana has shortened its waits, which used to take hours. The state's license offices were just named the best in America by an international association of motor vehicle administrators.

Gov. Mitch Daniels hired people from the business world to run the offices like stores, where service counts.

The state also started collecting detailed data on wait times, tracking every customer to find and fix slow points.

When each customer leaves, he or she gets a piece of paper saying how long the visit lasted. Right now, the average wait time in Indiana is 14 minutes and 28 seconds. Even metropolitan offices in Indianapolis run very much in line with the 14-minute average.

When asked if he believes that the problems in Indiana could have been solved with just bigger buildings and additional staff, Daniels said those measures "might have made it worse." Indiana needed a "culture change" in the way the entire system operated, he said.

Daniels also said he believes Indiana's wait times can be brought down even more.

"I don't even let them use the term wait time," he said. "We don't want you waiting. It's visit time."

Today, 70 percent of Indiana license transactions happen online or over the phone, keeping people out of the license offices.

But in Texas, a 2009 study found that most people who call the DPS phone system "hang up before reaching a live person, and only about 35 percent of calls are actually completed."

Recent statistics show the phone center was still "unable to assist" more than 30,000 customers last month alone.

Over the last two years, DPS has dramatically reduced hold times on its phone system, and more people are starting to renew their license online, alleviating some pressure from the overburdened offices.

"We're adding new people. We're adding technology. We're just doing all kinds of things to make that transaction as quick and easy as possible," Davio said.

NBC 5 Investigates also contacted Ada Brown, the DFW representative on the Public Safety Commission that oversees the DPS, but she refused to meet for an interview.

How long was your last trip to a DPS office? Let the NBC 5 Investigates team know on Facebook or on Twitter using #DPSwaits. NBC 5 Investigates will continue to what happens when the megacenters open.

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