MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – The state of Vermont is gearing up to begin issuing enhanced driver’s licenses, which will allow holders to cross the United States-Canada border without a passport or other supporting documents.

The first few are to be issued next month to VIPs, and they’ll become available to the general public early in 2009, according to Vermont Motor Vehicle Commissioner Bonnie Rutledge.

The new licenses cost $25 more than regular ones. Anyone applying will have to present extensive documentation to prove their identity and be interviewed by a motor vehicle employee. Unlike traditional ones, they’re not going to be issued on the spot. Instead, they’ll be mailed once the information has been verified.

The special licenses are being issued in anticipation of full implementation of the federal Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, scheduled for June 1, when travelers entering the U.S. by land or sea will need an enhanced driver’s license, a passport or special passport card issued by the U.S. State Department.

New York State began issuing the enhanced licenses in September. About 10,000 have been issued so far, said Jackie McGinnis, a spokeswoman for the New York Department of Motor Vehicles.

The enhanced drivers’ licenses contain an electronic transponder, like those used in E-Z Pass toll-paying systems. Once fully implemented, border officials will be able to read a traveler’s card even before the person reaches the booth.

U.S. Customs and Border Security is preparing to install the equipment needed to read the licenses at the Vermont ports of entry – in Highgate and Derby Line – by June 1, said spokesman Ted Woo.

Two border crossings in the state of Washington and Arizona began using the automated card reading equipment earlier this month. The first automated lanes were to begin operating Monday at the Peace Bridge, which links Buffalo, N.Y., with Canada.

But people with the licenses will be able to use them at other ports that don’t have the special equipment, too, said Woo.

The border ID crackdown is part of U.S. efforts to improve security in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Officials in Vermont and other border states fear stepped-up security at crossings could hamper commerce along the border. The enhanced drivers’ licenses are meant to ease that concern.

“With our economy in Vermont quite dependent on business from north of the border, many families in the northern part of the state have close ties to Quebec residents and them to us, I felt (the enhanced license program was) a much easier, more cost effective way to keep them moving back and forth easier,” said Rutledge.

Prompted by privacy concerns, New Hampshire has balked at putting transponders in its licenses. This summer, it started issuing new, more secure licenses, but Woo said they couldn’t be used to cross the border.

Jim Van Dongen, state emergency management spokesman, said coding embedded in the licenses validates the holder’s name and state when viewed through a special lens.

In Maine, Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said the state has not opted in for the program. It’s unlikely to come back up immediately, he said, because of the upfront costs.

“We’ll be watching with interest to see how it works in other states,” Dunlap said.

Implementing the program in Vermont will cost about $2 million, although the extra costs are expected to be recovered within two years through the extra fee, Rutledge said.

At first, Vermont’s enhanced licenses will only be available at the DMV’s central office in Montpelier, Rutledge said.

People seeking the licenses will need identity documents such as a birth certificate, Social Security card or a passport. They will have to complete a special form and have an interview with a specially training Motor Vehicle employee, Rutledge said.

The Motor Vehicle office in Montpelier has been modified to add private areas for the interviews; employees who will conduct the interviews had to go through special security checks.

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