The lines moved quickly at the downtown Boston Registry of Motor Vehicles on Wednesday afternoon, proof of a recent turnaround that has surprised many who remember the days of endless waits and surly customer service agents.
Drivers were renewing their licenses or obtaining new titles in as little as 15 minutes. On average, 92 percent of customers waited less than 30 minutes in February, according to state data, the third straight month over 85 percent. That compares to 66 percent as recently as last September.
But business may not run as smoothly starting next week, as the availability of a new kind of license has state officials bracing for an increase in branch traffic that could test the agency’s ability to keep pace.
The new driver’s licenses, known as Real ID, require drivers to show more documents to prove US citizenship or lawful presence in the country, as well as Massachusetts residency.
The ID rules come from a 2005 US law as an added security measure following the 9/11 attacks, and states have slowly rolled them out since. Come October 2020, non-Real ID licenses will not be an acceptable form of identification for boarding a domestic flight or entering a federal building.
That’s a pretty big incentive to get one. But there’s a catch: The new ID can only be obtained in person, not online.
Residents who don’t want a Real ID — maybe because they don’t fly or are willing to use a passport when they do — don’t have to upgrade. A non-Real ID license can be obtained online unless it’s been 14 years or more since the last in-person renewal.
But officials expect many of the 5.3 million ID holders in Massachusetts to opt for the Real ID. And that could send legions of applicants who would usually renew online to RMV branches or AAA offices, which can handle some RMV business for its members.
“Any of those 5.3 million folks who want a federal Real ID are going to have to come physically in to either a registry office or a AAA. That’s going to be a big change,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said this week. “We’ve been preparing for that change.”
According to state officials, 70 percent of people eligible to renew their licenses online choose to do so. But that won’t be an option when first obtaining a Real ID, though subsequent renewals can be made online.
Meanwhile, demand for the Real IDs could be high. In some of the more than two dozen states that have already implemented Real ID, 90 percent of license holders opted for it, Pollack said.
State officials said the RMV is taking steps to minimize a backslide in wait times.
Erin Deveney, the RMV leader, said the agency has hired 50 new temporary employees. The RMV hopes 25 of those workers will keep their positions permanently, joining a current staff of about 750.
Online tools could also moderate wait times, Deveney said, by letting customers store some personal information in state systems ahead of time, and alerting them to which documents they’ll need to bring to the branch.
Plus, there’s no rush for many drivers to get to the RMV; the federal requirements don’t take effect until October 2020. Instead, officials believe many will likely come in only as their licenses expire.
California began issuing Real IDs in January and anticipated service centers would get busier. But so far officials there have “not seen a noticeable increase in foot traffic,” said Artemio Armenta, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. That could change, he suggested, as October 2020 draws closer.
In Massachusetts, Deveney said the agency’s goal is for 80 percent of customers to wait 30 minutes or less, and it will try to keep this target even after the introduction of Real ID. But that would mark some slippage from the RMV’s performance the last three months.
And a wait of even 30 minutes would stand in contrast to the quick processing at the Boston branch Wednesday. Elizabeth Porter, who was back for her second bid to get a learner’s permit, said she’s never faced a long RMV wait.
“I literally sat down and they right away called my number,” she said.
Aside from crowding concerns, some drivers are also worried about the simple logistics of obtaining the new ID.
To get one, US citizens must present a Social Security card or a document displaying the Social Security number; a passport, birth certificate, or immigration papers proving citizenship; and two documents proving Massachusetts residence, such as a bank statement or utility bill from within the last 60 days. Noncitizens must present other documents to prove lawful presence in the United States.
And even for drivers skipping Real ID and renewing their Massachusetts license online, the state is now requiring more proof of identity upon renewal, including proof of citizenship or lawful presence, and another proving Massachusetts residency.
Tom McManus said he does not have a passport and has no copy of his birth certificate. Now a resident of Wareham, McManus will have to go to Boston City Hall and pay $12 to get a birth certificate when the time comes to renew his license.
“There’s some inconvenience to this and some extra cost as well,” he said in a phone interview. “The inconvenience of doing it, is it really going to make me any safer?”
A full list of documents required for either form of ID is available at mass.gov/id.
Some drivers will need still more information.
To obtain a Real ID in her state, New Hampshire resident Nelle Douville had to present documents showing she had changed her name when going through gender transition.
These same rules apply to any name change, including from marriages or divorces. Douville said obtaining documents proving a name change could be especially burdensome for women.
New Hampshire and other states with Real ID say on their websites that drivers must present documents related to a name change. Massachusetts does not, but a spokeswoman confirmed that drivers here will also need to prove their name has changed if it differs from other documents such as a birth certificate.