Backlog of REAL ID applications hits Pennsylvania |

Backlog of REAL ID applications hits Pennsylvania

Nicole C. Brambila
The federal government’s REAL ID act requires state driver’s licenses and ID cards to have security enhancements and be issued to people who can prove they’re legally in the United States.
Sample REAL ID driver’s license that will be available in Pennsylvania beginning in March 2019.
State Rep. Mark Gillen, R-Robeson Township
An automated PennDOT email explaining the online, pre-verification application is still pending because of increased customer demand.

The first wave of Real ID seekers produced a backlog of more than 30,000 unprocessed PennDOT applications, raising concerns about wait times for the new identification cards people will need to get on an airplane next year.

In the past two weeks, the logjam has been reduced to 14,000 pending online requests, according to PennDOT, which expects that 2.5 million Pennsylvanians will apply for a Real ID-compliant identification.

“At the current pace I think we can easily assess that we’re substantially behind,” said state Rep. Mark Gillen, a Berks County Republican who has pressed PennDOT for more transparency on the issue. “We could see a cataclysmic backlog of applicants for Real ID.”

Real ID is optional for Pennsylvania residents but a federal law requires a passport, military identification or a Real ID card to fly domestically or enter a military base or federal building starting Oct. 1, 2020. The identifications come in the form of a new driver’s license or photo identification card.

Passed by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Real ID Act establishes federal security standards for state driver’s licenses and ID cards. A dozen states, including Pennsylvania, have been granted an extension and are still in the process of becoming compliant, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

State transportation officials declined to say how long the online application process takes, but some cardholders report waiting weeks, even months.

Alexis Campbell, a PennDOT spokeswoman, said online requests received before Feb. 1 will be completed by week’s end.

She said the process to verify a person’s documents is time-consuming because records have to be manually checked and some records are stored on microfilm.

PennDOT started pre-verifying cardholders in March.

Sophie Gage, 29, of Mt. Lebanon said she began the online application about two weeks ago. Having missed PennDOT’s Feb. 1 submission deadline, she will not likely be verified for a Real ID in time for the first issuances.

She was surprised to learn some people have waited months for verification. Those still awaiting verification have received automated emails from Penn­DOT explaining their online request is pending, citing “increased customer demand.”

“I just feel like they put it out there enough, perhaps they should have been better prepared,” Gage said.

Despite direct-mail marketing efforts and airport events to encourage Pennsylvanians to apply for Real ID, just about 300,000 of the expected 2.5 million applicants have started the process.

“If the experience of some that have made an application for license have been substantially delayed, what’s going to happen when we have millions of more Real ID seekers entering the system?” Gillen said.

Gillen added, “It’s clear that the pace we’re on currently is going to be wholly insufficient to get the job done. I think a crisis is looming.”

As of Feb. 19, nearly 160,000 Pennsylvanians have been pre-verified — a process to submit required documents whether online or in person.

Online requests are processed by a staff of 16 in a central office, Campbell said.

State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, told the Trib PennDOT has hired about half of the staff needed for the increased demand. PennDOT has been authorized for roughly 200 additional positions, she said.

“I’d like to find out why they’re not staffed up yet,” said Ward, who is the vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The committee is scheduled to meet Monday.

Ward added, “I’m not nervous yet, but if I don’t get the answer, I will be.”

An estimated 35 percent, or 4.5 million Pennsylvania cardholders, already have their documents on file with PennDOT, which started copying originals in September 2003. Obtaining a Real ID for everyone else will mean a document trip to a Department of Motor Vehicles site.

Bob Kerlik, who works for the Allegheny County Airport Authority, said he was among those who provided documents and was pre-verified during a PennDOT event in December at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

To date, the airport has held three such events to help those wanting a Real ID, Campbell said. PennDOT has held similar event across the state.

Although the federal deadline is still 20 months away, Kerlik said what worries him most is that the issue may be flying under the radar of most Western Pennsylvanians.

“There’s still a lot of time before the deadline,” Kerlik said. “But what we don’t want is for someone, after the deadline, to book a flight and show up to go to Florida and can’t go because they don’t have a Real ID.”

How to apply:

To get a REAL ID, PennDOT says it must verify original versions or certified copies of: a birth certificate with a raised seal or a valid U.S. passport; a Social Security Card; two proofs of physical addressand proof of all legal name changes. People who got their first licenses or identifications before September 2003 will need to bring the required documents to a driver’s license center. Those who gottheir first Pennsylvania driver’s license or identification card after September 2003 can apply online at There is a $30 fee.

Nicole C. Brambila is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Nicole at 724-226-7704, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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