Politics & Government

Price soars for Washington travelers looking for REAL ID stand-in

Michelle Henrich shows off a temporary enhanced drivers license she just received at the state licensing office in Tacoma on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016. A pen was used to black out sensitive information.
Michelle Henrich shows off a temporary enhanced drivers license she just received at the state licensing office in Tacoma on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016. A pen was used to black out sensitive information. lwong@thenewstribune.com

Washington residents concerned about using driver’s licenses to board airplanes after next year are paying more these days to overcome legislative inaction on bringing state-issued identification cards in line with federal regulations.

The Department of Homeland Security has repeatedly threatened to stop accepting driver’s licenses that don’t meet federal standards. Its latest deadline for Washington state is 2018.

That was enough to convince travel-happy Bob Morton, 66, to opt to pay more for an enhanced driver’s license when he got his six-year renewal this week at the state Department of Licensing office in Tacoma. Enhanced driver’s licenses meet the requirements of the federal REAL ID Act.

“It might make it easier to fly in the future,” Morton said.

But Morton and other would-be travelers at the licensing office Tuesday said enhanced driver’s licenses and IDs shouldn’t be their only option short of carrying a passport on domestic flights. Obtaining enhanced licenses requires extra steps, such as proving citizenship.

They also cost a lot more than a basic driver’s license or, in some cases, a passport. In July, the base price of enhanced licenses tripled from $18 to $54 to help pay for Washington’s 2015 transportation package that put $16 billion toward road enhancements and other projects.

Renewing a driver’s license with an enhanced ID upgrade now runs $108, double what a standard license costs. The cost of an enhanced driver’s license for first-time licensees spiked from $107 to $143.

A first-time passport buyer pays $135.

The cost almost stopped Harriet Cummings, 75, from buying an enhanced license. But the Gig Harbor resident said she’s “just going to eat” the fee so she can fly without a passport.

“I think people would be more inclined to do it if it wasn’t so expensive,” she said.

The price tag “discriminates against poor people, for sure,” Morton said.

Out of compliance

The 2005 REAL ID law requires states to confirm legal residency to issue standard driver’s licenses and identification cards. Washington is the only state that doesn’t ask for proof.

As a consequence, Homeland Security in October announced it wouldn’t continue Washington’s extension for compliance. The expiration of the state’s extension led Joint Base Lewis-McChord to quit accepting basic state-issued IDs as standalone identification for visitors in April. Airport security checkpoints will do the same in January 2018.

Twenty-seven other states are out of compliance with the federal regulations for various reasons, though only two states besides Washington haven’t received an extension from the government.

Some state lawmakers have attempted to change applicant standards for basic ID to meet federal regulations, but with no luck.

State Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, has proposed creating a new state ID that’s something between a basic driver’s license and an enhanced license. The third option would be cheaper than an enhanced ID but not require citizenship.

“I’d love to have this resolved and behind us and move on to other things,” King said.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, a Mercer Island Democrat who is chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said she worries King’s approach would call attention to people who can’t prove legal residency.

Such disagreements, as well as moving deadlines from the feds, have stalled potential legislative fixes, according to King, the Senate’s transportation committee chairman.

Clibborn is confident the Legislature will find a solution next year.

“I think it’s going to be difficult to make everybody happy,” she said. “But I think there is some middle ground.”

Until then, King called enhanced identification cards a “partial solution,” and said the Legislature was justified in raising their price because it was done in an effort to offset the higher cost of creating and issuing them.

Clibborn said anyone worried about the cost of enhanced driver’s licenses should use a passport at airports.

“No one is trying to get the public to buy these enhanced driver’s licenses because we think that they are the answer to everything,” King said. “But it’s a way to at least solve part of the problem we’re seeing by not having a federally approved driver’s license.”

REAL ID as an alternative

That leaves Washington residents worried about the 2018 deadline stuck, for now, with enhanced identification cards that are “a tier higher than what REAL ID requires,” according to the Department of Licensing legislative director Tony Sermonti.

Because the enhanced cards allow travel to Mexico and Canada, proof of citizenship is needed to get one, which takes time and processing. It also bars some, such as international students, from getting them.

The enhanced IDs also have other features like a radio chip used to verify the card by border control that make it more expensive than standard state identification, Sermonti said.

The option has proved popular. State licensing data shows a surge in enhanced driver’s licenses applications last fall around the time the federal government denied Washington’s request for an extension for complying with REAL ID. And the trend has continued to pick up steam: More than 84,000 people bought enhanced driver’s licenses through the end of July 2016 compared with about 78,000 in all of 2015.

Since the price hike, licensing data shows a slight drop in applications for enhanced driver’s licenses. The department issued 10,233 enhanced licenses in July, down from a March high of 13,523.

Sales of enhanced licenses are still a fraction of the regular licenses issued. There were 296,117 first-time purchases of standard licenses in 2015 and more than 700,000 renewals.

Tho Lam, 31, of Tacoma, said Tuesday that he can stomach paying extra if it means making traveling easier.

“I’m going to get a new (driver’s license) anyways so I might as well just do an enhanced one,” Lam said, adding the state should update its regular driver’s licenses “since they know they’re not in compliance with airports.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein

To get an enhanced driver’s license

Applicants must prove their identity, that they reside in Washington and that they’re a citizen of the U.S.

A passport is accepted as proof of identity and citizenship status. Other documents such as a birth certificate can prove citizenship. A driver’s license, a U.S. military ID and other forms of ID are accepted as proof of identity.

Residency can be proved with, among other documents, a property tax bill or statement dated within the last 12 months, a home utility bill dated within the last 60 days or a driver’s license.

Find more accepted documents here: tinyurl.com/24k54v4