EDITORIAL Pa. wasting resources with new driver’s licenses that aren’t REAL ID compliant

Pennsylvania's new driver's licenses are going out of style quickly.

Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

Next month, Pennsylvania’s motorists will begin receiving brand new licenses the state Department of Transportation says will offer enhanced security features.

The cards include a larger primary photo of the license holder, a two-dimensional barcode with data unique to that person, and a large “PA” emblem perforated into the surface by a laser. Gone is the electronic magnetic strip on the back.

There are also a few stylistic changes, including the addition of the state motto, seal and the year state lawmakers ratified the U.S. Constitution.

“The update is an important component of PennDOT’s ongoing work to enhance and protect the integrity of the driver’s license and identification card issuance process,” PennDOT Secretary Leslie Richards said upon unveiling the cards in June.

All of these changes are fine for security purposes, but it makes no sense why they’re being made now, just two years before Pennsylvania will once again have to create a new driver’s license to come into compliance with the federal REAL ID Act passed more than a decade ago.

That law, passed in 2005 under the Bush Administration, was designed to streamline security features with identification cards across the country in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Nearly two-dozen states have weighed in against the law and refused to comply with it, including Pennsylvania, claiming it was an overreach by the federal government. The primary concerns are it will cost the states more money to produce, while also raising concerns about privacy rights.

Those protests were quelled when the federal government announced last year someone holding a noncompliant identification card would not be permitted to use it to go through airport security before boarding an airplane or entering a federal building. Instead, they would be required to produce identification distributed by the federal government, such as passports or military IDs.

That threat changed the minds of Pennsylvania’s officials very quickly, and in June they agreed to begin the process of creating and distributing REAL ID-compliant licenses. They’ve already asked and been granted several extensions, including an October deadline.

But by then, the process was already underway for the current redesign that you’ll begin seeing in your wallet next month.

Still, with all of this looming in the background, why did PennDOT work for nearly two years with a contractor on the planning, design and distribution of new licenses that are not REAL ID-compliant? Transportation officials knew these changes were coming eventually, and now the state will be stuck with outdated licenses in just a couple of years when REAL ID goes into effect here.

How much money was spent over the past two years to design these cards, and how much more will it cost to distribute them over the next two years, only to have to create a new license once again in 2019?

PennDOT still isn’t sure what its new REAL ID cards will look like, so it’s impossible to say whether the features on the new license can be recycled and transferred.

Hopefully, there will be just a few minor tweaks, but no matter what happens, taxpayers and drivers will bear the cost of PennDOT’s unfortunate timing. Pennsylvania’s new drivers licenses will be going out of style quickly.