Last year, Wright County residents were stunned to learn that, following the state shutdown of all License Bureaus, DMVs and driver road testing stations as the first wave of COVID-19 swept through Minnesota, the Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) testing station in Buffalo wasn’t going to re-open.
Don’t hold your breath on it re-opening any time soon – unless the State Legislature intervenes.
Wright County is far from alone on this issue. At the start of 2020, there were 93 driver testing stations throughout Minnesota. When the state re-opened six weeks later, only 14 of the 93 returned to operation (Anoka, Arden Hills, Bemidji, Detroit Lakes, Duluth, Eagan, Fairmont, Grand Rapids, Mankato, Marshall, Plymouth, Rochester, St. Cloud and Willmar).
As part of a Legislative study dealing with the Department of Public Safety and DVS (the 48-page study can be found here): https://www.senate.mn/committees/2021-2022/3102_Committee_on_Transportation_Finance_and_Policy/Legislative%20Report%20-%20DVS%20Exam%20Backlog.pdf) a four-phased program was laid out for the gradual re-opening of testing facilities.
Wright Commissioner Darek Vetsch, who provided testimony to the State Legislature last spring about the pressing need to either open testing stations or allow local jurisdictions the ability to take over those operations, sees the Legislative Report on the current state of Minnesota DVS as an indictment of its ineffectiveness.
“To be honest, it’s pathetic,” Vetsch said. “The DVS claimed it has a four-phase approach to re-opening testing stations. The first was the initial 14 sites. The second phase added a handful more – none of them close to Wright County. The third phase was one station in Moorhead. The fourth phase, which is expected by May, doesn’t include Buffalo. The closest road testing stations for anyone from Wright County is either Plymouth or St. Cloud and the wait time to get a driver’s test is around 60 days. This system is broken and it’s getting worse.”
Those with children of the age to take their first driving test have needed to be resourceful to find a location with appointment slots open. If Plymouth and St. Cloud have been booked two months out and an appointment is available in Rochester in two weeks, many make the drive. However, this isn’t a COVID phenomenon.
A decade ago, State Rep. Marion O’Neill’s son needed to take a driver’s test. Even with the Buffalo testing site open on a limited schedule, to find a site that could provide the testing quicker, she had to drive to Bemidji because the backlog was less there.
“This was a problem before the pandemic and has only become worse since,” O’Neill said. “It’s hard to imagine that a system can improve when you reduce the number of available locations by that amount. It’s especially needed here because Wright County continues to grow and our growth is in a younger population that is going to have an increased need for the kind of services we had at the Buffalo testing station.”
There was a fear that, once the reduced testing site plan was unveiled to address the long-term inadequacy of the DVS system, that sites like the one in Buffalo and 70 other Minnesota communities likely wouldn’t come back. Vetsch said that a change needs to be made for those families that could have much easier access to testing stations by opening up the alternatives.
“When I testified at the Legislature last year, the point I made is that this system is overrun and has been for a long time,” Vetsch said. “I said let counties or third-parties have the ability – if they want to – to be able to do the testing themselves. If Wright County had that opportunity, we would jump on it because we know there is a need and we’ve been asking for some time for reform to a system that clearly doesn’t work.”
State Rep. Eric Lucero has taken up that call, sponsoring a House bill (https://www.revisor.mn.gov/bills/text.php?number=HF1141&version=latest&session=92&session_number=0&session_year=2021) that would open up that opportunity.
“I continue to receive numerous communications from parents around our community frustrated at the multi-month waiting list to schedule the driving test road exam,” Lucero said. “There was dysfunction at the Minnesota Department of Driver and Vehicle Services creating the backlog before COVID and the situation remains a major headache. I’ve chief authored House File 1141 to help bring relief by utilizing the existing deputy registrars around the state allowing them to administer road tests. Expanding the number of road testing sites around the state will help eliminate the unnecessarily long waiting list.”
O’Neill said she would support the legislation because something needs to change. The DPS has been lagging in many respects when it comes to serving the non-metro communities of Minnesota with the access to testing sites. She feels it’s time for Minnesota lawmakers to correct a problem that has been festering for years and only became a hot-button topic when COVID-19 exposed years of problems, not a pandemic-created issue.
“I think the Legislature has to intervene – we have to get involved,” O’Neill said. “With less testing sites, you have access issues. If you look at the map, it’s not reasonable to send someone three hours to take a test. That’s what is happening in northern Minnesota. We had 93 testing stations for a reason. You can’t expect a family to take six, seven or eight hours out of their day to go take a driving test.”
As with any legislation, there needs to be a consensus to have it included in any of the litany of bills that get passed in a session and there is likely to be opposition from DPS to give up some of its authority to local governments or third-party administrators. However, Vetsch believes the current system has been so flawed for so long, change isn’t just due. It should be demanded.
“How long can we keep asking people to travel throughout the state to find a driver’s test appointment or wait two months to drive an hour both ways to the closest site?” Vetsch said. “To me, it’s a fairness issue. If the state can’t handle the job, there are counties that are willing to take on that responsibility for the benefit of their citizens. This isn’t a tough decision. The system is broken and there is an opportunity to make it better. It’s time to change this because the current system clearly hasn’t worked.”