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EYE ON ILLINOIS: Drivers need more answers on how state will safely clear backlog

Two memories from my 16th birthday in August 1995 are permanent: enjoying a Rockford Cubbies game and that the occasion fell on a Sunday.

The day of the week never matters for childhood summer birthdays, but turning 16 in Illinois on a Sunday is excruciating since driver services facilities are closed Mondays. Having already passed the driving test the preceding spring, getting my first license was a mere formality. But the waiting — brutal!

My oldest son turned 16 last month. Schools already were closed through the end of the academic year. There was no Cubs game to enjoy, either. But we had no indication when he might be allowed to get his license, rendering my childhood story absurd in comparison.

The state already extended expiration dates for 90 days after the offices reopen, has created drive-thru sites for certain services and on Tuesday announced a new plan to reopen offices in June and July for only people with expired licenses, vehicle transactions and new drivers. It’s progress, but it’s unclear these accommodations will be enough to clear the backlog with any type of expedience.

When I took my son to get his learner’s permit on a Wednesday July afternoon, our wait started outside the suburban office. It was like a Great America queue for Goliath or X-Flight, absent the rush of excitement or funnel cake aroma.

Employees will wear face masks and patrons should do the same, but standing lines and seated waiting areas will require significantly more space to meet public health guidelines. The Secretary of State’s Office said it has installed plexiglass dividers for workstations and taped off six-feet intervals on floors, which will mean only a set number of people allowed indoors. 

This poses challenges for people who have to bring their children and possibly jeopardizes popular lines designated for senior citizens or those with mobility limitations. The state hasn’t clarified policies for patrons removing masks for identification photos, nor has it said anything about safety considerations for in-vehicle road tests.

Illinois could combat its mounting unemployment crisis by hiring for these facilities, perhaps extending operating hours while minimizing overtime pay. But training isn’t free, and additional state jobs exacerbate the pension problem. Other considerations include new offices, but many landlords have long enough memories to recall the painful months under Gov. Bruce Rauner when the state stopped making rent payments because there was no spending plan in place. 

Nobody wants unreasonable lines, especially outdoors, but neither are folks generally keen on increased taxes or fees to pay people to make things move faster.

My license is good through 2023. Hopefully my teenager will have his by then, but we aren’t looking forward to the process.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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