Updated: Friday, September 29, 2017, 2:13 PM
As things stand right now, an extension granted to Pennsylvania by the Department of Homeland Security will expire Oct. 10, which means that in January, commonwealth driver’s licenses will no longer be accepted as valid ID for boarding airplanes or entering federal facilities.
Should that happen, passengers will need a passport or some document like it. Pennsylvanians without such documents will be grounded, and fewer than half of Pennsylvanians have passports.
Why is this happening?
In 2005, at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, the REAL ID federal law was passed, ordering states to upgrade driver’s licenses to meet enhanced security standards.
There was going to be a slow rollout to give states time to implement changes. The reaction in Pennsylvania, the land that time forgot, was to pass a 2012 law to block the state from implementing REAL ID.
Some of the opposition came from Republican (and some Democratic) lawmakers who saw it as a costly unfunded mandate. Others, in tinfoil hats, feared a national registry of some kind, and a few felt it was fun to obstruct a Democratic president. Poisonous Politics 101.
Over time, however, the commonwealth’s fabled legislature came to realize, “Hey, this could be bad for my constituents.”
Pennsylvania then sought and received several extensions to the deadline for compliance with REAL ID. In May, Gov. Wolf signed legislation to bring Pennsylvania into line with federal requirements.
The latest extension, however, expires Oct. 10. Unless there’s a fix, in January, state licenses will be useless as federal ID.
“This is going to create pandemonium,” I was told by an airport source, who asked for anonymity. “People will go crazy when they find they can’t board planes without a passport.”
Pennsylvania sought another extension this month, I was told by PennDot spokesman Craig Yetter, but it hasn’t heard back yet.
“If PA does not have an active extension by Jan. 22, 2018, PA licenses will not be sufficient when going through TSA,” I was told in an email from DHS spokeswoman Justine Whelan.
So, the storm is gathering, but few people seem to be aware of it. What with hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, wild fires, tweet storms from the president, and the Phillies not losing 100 games, we have been distracted.
As I poked around, asking different agencies different questions, I came up with a TSA spokesman who spilled some welcome beans.
“The extension has not been approved,” he said, “but they are getting it. That’s a foregone conclusion. The state will be good to go until 2020.”
I asked him whether that was official. He said it was, even though he was not authorized to announce it yet, not even to PennDot. He believes it will be announced early next month.
Should that happen, PennDot estimates REAL ID driver’s licenses will be available by March 2019, well ahead of the Oct. 1, 2020, deadline when all airports and federal facilities will demand REAL ID.
One final point: No one is required to file for the REAL ID license. You can opt for the current license and avoid the one-time fee (the amount has not yet been decided) that will be attached to the enhanced one.
If you go that route, you might want to have your passport ready to go.