If you were told that renewing your driver’s license at a Department of Public Safety office could take only 10 minutes, you might think that someone was pulling your leg.
But that's indeed the case at DPS's six new driver's license mega centers across the state, according to spokesman Tom Vinger. “Office visits to the mega centers for customers seeking driver license renewals and replacements, which comprise the majority of transactions at driver license offices, are averaging 10 minutes or less,” he said in a statement.
DPS driver's license offices have a reputation for long, snaking lines, with exhausting wait times. But the spacious mega centers have implemented technology to drastically cut the wait time for driver's license renewals and replacements.
At the 24,000-square-foot Austin-Pflugerville DPS mega center, customers are greeted by digital kiosks mounted on the wall. After pressing a few buttons, the customer gets a paper slip with a number and is sent to one of several designated waiting areas. One area is for quick tasks, such as renewing a license, and other waiting areas are for longer stays, like driving tests. Digital monitors display ticket numbers, and text messages can alert drivers when their turn is up.
The Austin-Pflugerville center was the first mega center to open, debuting Oct. 30. The last of the six to open was the Fort Worth facility, which opened a week ago. Other centers are in Spring and Rosenberg, which serve the Houston area; Garland, which serves the Dallas area; and Leon Valley, which serves the San Antonio area.
New technology can help customers “get in line” online or from a smart phone without being present at the office. Alerts are sent via text message letting customers know when they should arrive at the center. If they are running behind, they can push themselves back in line instead of losing their spot, Vinger said.
DPS paid for the centers with the help of $63 million in extra funding from the Legislature in 2011, a session in which most government bodies suffered budget cuts.
State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, says the motivation for granting DPS additional funding was the frequent complaints heard from people who had to wait hours in lines. He gave an example of a story he heard about a person who ordered a pizza in line while attempting to renew a license — the pizza was delivered and the person ate it before reaching the front of the line.
“We really had not put in any new resources to serve the state, and the population has been growing very rapidly,” Williams said in an email.
"We can't expect the department to issue these IDs for voting purposes and not give them the resources to do that,” he said.
Williams added that although the prospect of an influx of people going to DPS centers to receive the proper photo ID for voting purposes played a part in the conversation, “it was not what was driving the train.”
Visitors who made recent trips to the Austin-Pflugerville mega center expressed relief when their trips were much quicker than past experiences at DPS facilities.
“I came from another location that was just packed,” said Mary Phraphakdy, a teacher who recently returned to Texas after teaching for three years in South Korea. She was able to complete her license renewal in about five minutes.
While customers are encouraged to visit mega centers for fast service, many tasks can be completed online. Renewing a license, requesting a driving record or changing a mistake on a driver's license are all things that Vinger says DPS encourages drivers to do online if they can.
Vinger says that mega centers are also lightening the load on traditional centers. He said the DPS center in Boerne has seen a 10 percent reduction in the number of customers visiting the center since the opening of the nearby Leon Valley mega center.
For the 83rd session, DPS has requested about $104.5 million in “exceptional item” funding for 2014-15, according to a DPS report. The funds requested would go toward updated technology, extending operational hours and an additional 963 employees to staff driver license centers.
No funds for additional mega centers were requested by DPS. Williams says he anticipates that the next phase for DPS license centers will be allocating these resources to rural areas and making sure that those centers have the necessary staff and technology to become more efficient.
"It's the best thing we did last session to make government work,” he said.