At Tuesday’s workshop meeting of the Wright County Board of Commissioners, the board received an update on some of the legislative actions that have taken place over the last two special sessions. As it turned out, not much was accomplished in those meetings and one item that remains unresolved is the reopening of driver’s exam/testing stations throughout the state.
In March, the Minnesota Department of Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) completely shut down for six weeks, creating an even larger backlog than already existed prior to COVID-19 – an issue that dates back several years.
When DVS announced reopening plans in early-May, it did so by reducing the number of testing stations from 93 across the state to just 14 – in Anoka, Arden Hills, Bemidji, Detroit Lakes, Duluth, Eagan, Grand Rapids, Mankato, Marshall, Plymouth, Rochester, St. Cloud, St. Paul and Willmar.
Three months later, 85 percent of the testing stations, including the one in Buffalo, remain closed. Wright County Commissioner Darek Vetsch, who provided testimony at a House Committee hearing in May, said there is a real possibility that, when the DVS restructuring is complete, many of the testing stations in outstate Minnesota locations – including the Buffalo location – will remain closed.
Vetsch hasn’t ruled out that the Buffalo exam station will re-open at some point, but to date there has been no promising news in that regard.
“I’m not going to say never at this point, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility,” Vetsch said. “Right now, if we don’t fight for it, our chances of getting it reopened become less and less.”
Vetsch said the decision to drastically streamline the number of open stations doesn’t significantly impact those who live in heavily populated areas of the state. But, for those in rural areas, just getting to an exam station can be a challenge.
“They are condensing their workers in those locations because they say they can get better efficiency out of it,” Vetsch said. “There are winners and losers to that decision for Phase I that DVS has put out. Larger cities in the state have a shorter commute to get to the closest testing station while somebody from Crookston has to drive and hour and a half one way to get to the nearest facility. It’s not fair to those people. Even in Wright County, if you need to go to a testing station, your closest options are either Plymouth or St. Cloud.”
Vetsch said the DVS system has been broken for some time. Even before COVID-19, exam appointments for driver’s tests were pushed out two to three months – a number that only got worse when the pandemic closed down the operation. Those wanting an appointment that wasn’t pushed out three or more months had to travel to places like Mankato or Bemidji to find an open appointment slot.
He has seen the business model DVS has used, but feels it doesn’t adequately address the needs of the citizens of Minnesota, including the county he represents.
“I understand the rationale behind streamlining their operation, but it has created a new set of problems,” Vetsch said. “Because there are so few locations, the testing stations that are open went from a couple hundred people coming through their doors every day to a couple thousand because they’re drawing on a much bigger area. There isn’t an alternative for people like us in Wright County who have to travel outside the county to get to a testing station.”
Vetsch added that DVS officials have given their reasoning for having fewer stations open, but, when you factor in that the open stations are being flooded with people every day, there is a clearly demonstrated need to have more stations open, not packing a dozen or so stations with overflow customers.
“They say they’re getting better economy of scale by having all their testers on one site,” Vetsch said. “I don’t see how that’s possible. These testing facilities weren’t designed to have so many more testers. Those places were designed to have five or six testers and now they have 10 or more. I don’t see how that provides the economy of scale they claim.”
There likely isn’t going to be any movement on the exam station situation until 2021 at the earliest, but Vetsch said he and the county’s lobbyists at the Capitol aren’t going to stand idly by and do nothing. They may not win the battle, but it won’t keep them from trying.
“We’re going to keep on fighting for it,” Vetsch said. “With our population, we have enough people that warrants having a testing station in Wright County. I have a hard time wrapping my head around how going from 93 testing stations to 14 is going to make the operation better. It just overloads those stations that are open and forces many people to use up the better part of a day just to go to and from the closest testing station to them. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”