As Oregon moves to catch up with new security requirements, officials suggest passports will be the best way to clear airport security next year. (Pamplin Media Group/file)

If you’ve flown from Portland International Airport within the past couple of weeks you’ve probably received a warning from Transportation Security Administration agents while waiting to get through security: beginning Oct. 1, 2020, they’ll no longer accept state-issued identification that doesn’t comply with “Real ID” standards. 

That news surprised one Oregonian catching an early morning flight to Chicago this month. She explained to the TSA agent that she knew about the change and had obtained a new Oregon driver’s license the previous week. So, she told him, she’s ready for the new law.

Except, the TSA agent told her, she’s not.

That’s because Oregon’s Driver and Motor Vehicle Division offices won’t issue licenses that comply with the Real ID standards until July 2020 (the new licenses will have a star in the upper right corner).

“So I have to get a new license in July?” the woman asked. The agent asked: does she have a valid passport? She does. So, the agent told her that document will work.

The woman was relieved, but wondered aloud, “How did this happen? It makes no sense.”

Incompatible computers

The saga began when Congress passed the Real ID Act of 2005. On the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, federal lawmakers created a set of standards for the issuance of sources of identification like driver’s licenses.

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To understand why Oregon is in this predicament, you have to go back to 2009 when the Legislature passed Senate Bill 536, legislation that balked at the Real ID Act, calling it out as an unfunded mandate. Oregon lawmakers were unhappy that the federal government didn’t outline how it would reimburse the state for updating driver information systems. Oregon lawmakers also felt a new system would provide few security protections, leaving identification systems open to insider fraud, counterfeit documentation and database failures. 

The bill passed with little opposition, and the federal government pushed back the deadline as Oregon and nearly almost all other states refused to comply. During the next decade, the federal Department of Homeland Security began rolling out the law in phases, first at its own Washington, D.C., headquarters, then at nuclear facilities across the country. Air travel requirements were rolled out beginning Jan. 22, 2018. 

Ahead of the deadline, most states began changing their systems, which included implementation of massive new data servers to keep identification information secure. The system was used to instantly verify documentation, such as birth certificates, passports, Social Security numbers and residential addresses.

Driver and Motor Vehicles Services spokesman David House said Real ID compliance continued to come up in Oregon’s legislative process each year. One obstacle to the state’s participation was technology. ODOT’s system was running on millions of lines of primitive code inside an old mainframe computer. House said it could have been updated to handle the new info required for Real ID compliance, but the half-century-old system “is simply incompatible with modern technology.”

In 2015, ODOT began updating its information system. Two years later, the Legislature approved a bill to authorize Real ID compliance. Instead of starting a new information technology project to become compliant, the state signed a $69.4 million contract with Colorado’s Fast Enterprises, which also handled system changes for Massachusetts and Minnesota, to tack on creation of a new driver information system to ODOT’s project already underway.

“I think what really pushed Oregon is watching other states successfully roll out their new systems for compliance,” House said.

Saving some money

According to House, Oregon and many other states likely saved money by delaying compliance with the Real ID Act of 2005 because when the first deadline rolled around in 2008, data storage systems were much more expensive. Legislative staff reports filed with SB 536 in 2009 show that Congress estimated it would cost states around $3.9 billion, or about $78 million per state in 2005 dollars. 

Technology, particularly in the realm of security, has vastly improved during the past decade, according to House. There are still no hard numbers on how much Oregon and others might have saved by the delay, he said. 

Only Oklahoma, New Jersey and Oregon have yet to comply with Real ID standards. While ODOT awaits arrival of its new data system in July 2020, the agency is using the interim to warn travelers not to wait if they plan to fly after Oct. 1, 2020. 

Two weeks ago, ODOT and TSA officials spoke to reporters at Portland International Airport, where they encouraged frequent flyers to acquire passports so they’re not snagged in the anticipated long DMV lines, as people try to get new licenses to meet security requirements.

Do I really need to get a passport?

If you don’t fly, work at a nuclear power plant or need access to secure federal facilities, you don’t need identification that complies with the federal Real ID Act. But if you plan on flying — domestic or international — in the latter part of 2020, you should probably think about getting a passport. 

At least that’s what Transportation Security Administration and Oregon’s Department of Transportation advise travelers to do ahead of what is expected to be a wave of Oregon drivers lining up to get new identification when it becomes available next July.

While some passport offices are equipped to handle a higher volume of applications, such as those within the Portland area, others are bracing for growing pains in expectation of more Oregonians seeking to acquire their passport. 

Marion County Clerk Bill Burgess said he’s not overly worried about an influx of passport seekers in his district because the office already saw a huge throng of Marion County residents seeking passports after the 2016 election who were worried about their ability to visit family members in Central and South America. Nearly all of the staff members in Burgess’ office are trained to process passport applications. 

“After Trump was inaugurated, a lot of families were worrying how they would stay together and get across the border if they were U.S. citizens,” Burgess said. “Our passport business more than quadrupled.” 

Burgess believes his office will be ready, but he warns Marion County residents not to wait. If they plan to fly in October of next year, you really should submit your application around June 2020. “Think about it this way: a passport makes a great graduation gift,” Burgess said. 

Outside of county offices, some cities have their own passport services within city hall. Lake Oswego, for example, has staff trained to accept and passport applications. The city even offers photo services for a small fee. 

One tip offered by Lake Oswego Administrative Support Assistant Chloe Busch: U.S. passport cards ($65 with fees), which offer entry into Mexico and Canada, comply with Real ID standards and are less expensive than a standard U.S. passport book ($145 with fees). 

Busch said that during the past few weeks nearly everyone she has helped has said they were doing so to comply with Real ID standards, instead of waiting in line at the DMV next summer. She’s pitched those looking to fly domestically on purchasing the passport card to save a few bucks, especially if they’re purchasing for a family.

“This may sound stupid, but make sure you read all the instructions,” Busch said. “A lot of people kind of skim over it, so just to make the process as smooth as possible, read all of the information on instructions so you don’t have to come back several times.”

At larger agencies like Multnomah County’s Division of Assessment, Recording and Taxation, customer service agents are also confident they’ll be able to keep up with increased demand due to the high volume of passport applications they already handle. Supervisor Brian Smith said that his office handles around 15,000 applicants per year, sometimes as many as 130 people per day during the summer.

“Right now, it's too early to tell if we are seeing an influx of residents coming in to get passports ahead of next year's change,” Smith said. “We're closely tracking the numbers over the next couple of months, so we can anticipate and respond to any increase in applications and, hopefully, not have an increase in wait times.”

Contact Reporter Sam Stites - sstites@pamplinmedia.com or 971-255-2480.

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