Oklahoma residents who face monthslong delays in getting driver’s license renewals or Real IDs will be able to visit “mega centers” this summer in Oklahoma City and Tulsa to help clear a backlog that has been building since the coronavirus pandemic started.
The centers, whose locations have yet to be determined, will be open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. from Monday to Saturday, lawmakers said Wednesday. In addition, the Department of Public Safety has received a larger budget appropriation to hire more driver’s license examiners.
After years of inaction, Oklahoma finally began rolling out Real ID last summer. Delays hit both DPS offices and private tag agents with slowdowns from a new computer system and from limited hours as offices closed or cut hours because of coronavirus outbreaks.
“The pandemic created a wrinkle in the situation,” said Rep. Dell Kerbs, R-Shawnee, who announced details about the mega centers along with Sen. Chuck Hall, R-Perry. Oklahoma Watch disclosed the mega centers in a story earlier this week.
The spikes come just weeks before the start of a school year that was supposed to be a return to normal.
Hall said lawmakers, DPS, tag agents and the Office of Management and Enterprise Services have been working to address the delays and backlog for services. This week, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed Senate Bill 1057, which allows Oklahomans to opt for an eight-year license instead of the normal four-year license. Lawmakers budgeted about $6.6 million for the mega centers.
The Real ID Act, passed in 2005, established minimum security standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and ID cards. After years of delays, the federal government will begin enforcing the law in May 2023. The cards will be needed to fly domestically within the United States and for access into federal buildings.
Hall said the mega centers, which would be staffed with a mixture of Department of Public Safety and temporary employees, would free up tag agents to do other routine functions like titles and vehicle registrations. As delays have piled up in metro areas, many have driven several hours to rural tag agencies to take care of license needs or Real IDs. It takes between 15 and 20 minutes to do a Real ID verification. That cuts into the profits of tag agents, who can make more fees on other services that are quicker to process.
“It is our hope, with the Oklahoma City and Tulsa mega centers, to be able to address the backlog needs to the tune of 300,000 Oklahoma residents and citizens who are seeking Real ID. That should get us back on the right track,” Hall said.
Kerbs said lawmakers and tag agents are working on offering state services beyond just vehicle and license services. He didn’t offer specifics but mentioned vital records from the Oklahoma State Department of Health as one possibility.
“We want to make sure Oklahomans do not have to drive to Oklahoma City,” Kerbs said. “The last thing somebody in Guymon wants is to drive all the way to Oklahoma City for a piece of paper. We have great working relationships with tag agencies in that public-private partnership. Let’s bring that into the 21st century as well.”
While details are still being finalized, Hall said he expects the mega centers will have separate lines for commercial driver’s licenses, Real IDs and those for disabled drivers. Kerbs said each site will have up to 20 terminals, and have a screening line to make sure residents have the right documentation to direct them to the proper line.
Separately from the mega centers, the Department of Public Safety and tag agents are still working through delays in online renewals for non-Real ID licenses. Kerbs said tag agents are sending extra employees to nearby DPS offices to work on some of the backlogs.
“We still have a technical challenge where we have the new system on one side and the older system on the other side, and we still have challenges with that bridge,” Kerbs said.
Hall said some of the staffers who work in the mega centers will also be able to use their downtime to clear the online backlog.
Oklahoma Watch published a story earlier this week detailing some of the continued delays in getting licenses, Real IDs or driving tests. Dozens of readers shared their experiences with delays in a survey here.
More than half of those responding said they’ve waited two or three months for services.
“We tried to get my son’s driver’s license and they were booked out at least two months before we could get an appointment,” said one reader from Lawton. “Then they canceled it and had to wait another two months before we ever got to get in.”
Another person from Stillwater said they renewed their license online at the end of March, but still haven’t received the new license. They’ve called several times and waited on hold for more than an hour each time but still haven’t received answers about the delay.
One new resident is trying to transfer their license from another state but has found Oklahoma’s process more confusing than it needs to be.
“I have a demanding professional job and little vacation accrued, so I can’t afford to sit around and/or drive around to the locations I suspect may be able to do a license transfer,” the person said. “But it appears I will need to do this as I don’t believe I can wait (due to my position) another two months for an appointment. To say the least, this has been extremely frustrating!”
Paul Monies has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2017. He covers state agencies and public health. Call or text him at (571) 319-3289 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @pmonies.