REAL ID licenses to launch in New York

ALBANY — New York motorists will get a new option for a driver's license Oct. 30 when state and county motor vehicle agencies begin making available REAL ID documents that the federal government has been pushing states to offer since 2005.

New York is rated by the federal Department of Homeland Security as being "under review" when it comes to complying with the national government standards that flowed from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in which terrorists used hijacked jetliners as missiles to kill nearly 3,000 Americans.

Beginning Oct. 30, state and county motor vehicle departments will have three options available for motorists: the plain vanilla, or standard, license; the new REAL ID license and so-called enhanced licenses.

For those with standard licenses, state officials are advising New Yorkers that it is not essential to rush in for an updated license, as the current license will be accepted for boarding domestic flights until Oct. 1, 2020.

Once that date arrives, the federal government will require that people must have a REAL ID-compliant photographic identification to take domestic flights or enter a military base or other federal installation such as nuclear power plants.

The most versatile of New York licenses will remain the already-available Enhanced Driver's Licenses, called EDLs by state officials. Those who hold them can cross into Canada or Mexico without showing a passport. They are also accepted by the federal Transportation Security Administration for boarding domestic flights. The enhanced licenses, being compliant with REAL ID, are also accepted by military bases and other federal properties.

The cost for the enhanced New York license is $30 more than the cost of a regular license renewal. The state says it will charge the same for a REAL ID license as it does for the standard license renewal: $64.50

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says the transition to more-secure licenses and identification documents is an essential part of a "holistic national security strategy."

"Law enforcement must be able to rely on government-issued identification documents and know that the bearer of such a document is who he or she claims to be," the federal agency states on its website. 

County officials say the addition of REAL ID licenses and identification cards in New York gives residents an opportunity to decide which form of identification best suits their needs. Those who want to apply for REAL ID must do so at motor vehicle offices, as the new form of identification cannot be obtained through the mail or online. Those seeking them are expected to bring proof of identity, birth, residence, citizenship and Social Security numbers when they apply.

Contacted in Plattsburgh, Clinton County's DMV supervisor Dawn Chapple and her boss, County Clerk John Zurlo, said they have received only skimpy information from the state so far on the rollout for the REAL ID licenses. They said they anticipate many questions from license applicants.

"This is going to require a lot more work by county DMV offices because all these documents are going to have to be scanned in" to accompany the REAL ID applications, Chapple said.

The requirements are expected to rekindle grumbling by county governments over the fact that the state allots them just 12.7 percent of the revenue from DMV transactions that take place in local offices. The state gives 2 percent of the revenue, after certain thresholds are reached, for transactions that motorists conduct over the state DMV website.

"Their goal is to take all of our business, and leave us with the transactions that are impossible to do online or through the mail," Zurlo said.

Schoharie County Clerk Indica Jaycox said she also expects the new license option will draw attention to her contention that the counties that have motor vehicle agencies are being shortchanged by Albany. She noted her DMV staffers spend many hours answering complicated insurance questions from motorists without the county getting any money for that service.

"We even help a lot of people over the phone because people realize that calling Albany is not as easy as calling a county office," Jaycox said.

In Cooperstown, Otsego County Clerk Kathy Sinnott Gardner said she is expecting the updated menu of license options will spawn some confusion across the state. "Why can't we have just one license?" she asked. "Having three is kind of insane."

Gardner said she expects to keep her standard license for as long as it serves its purpose, and use a passport for identification when she travels. She noted that proposals to boost the revenue retention for counties has typically been approved by the GOP-led Senate in Albany but has been bottled up by an Assembly controlled by New York City Democrats.

The three New York licenses come with different markings. An American flag is printed in the lower right corner of the enhanced licenses, which are compliant with the REAL ID Act.

The Real ID comes with a circled star in the document's upper right-hand corner. The standard license stands out because of its marking, "NOT FOR FEDERAL PURPOSES" in the upper right-hand corner.

In Albany, state DMV spokeswoman Tiffany Portzer said her agency plans to produce an educational video to help raise awareness about the new REAL ID option that will be available soon.

She also acknowledged that the federal Department of Homeland Security granted New York and several other states extensions for coming into compliance with the federal rules. She noted that a grace period of enforcement granted to the states that qualified for the extensions allow New Yorkers to board airplanes and access federal facilities with current licenses or non-driver IDs.

Portzer did not elaborate on the specific reasons why the federal government has yet to fully certify New York's program.

In Washington, Anna Franko, spokeswoman for DHS, said her agency does not comment on "pre-decisional deliberations" or "steps towards compliance" by the states.

However, Franko pointed out: "Residents can expect no functional or operational changes at this time due to the implementation of a grace period by the department."

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com