At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, Minnesota closed its 93 driver’s license exam stations.
Two months later, the Department of Vehicle Services restarted operations at 15 stations, and only few more have opened since, leaving more than 70 shuttered, mostly in rural areas of Minnesota. The state said the consolidation helped Minnesota churn out licenses more efficiently in a system that had been plagued by appointment backlogs, long waits and staffing shortages.
But the move also drew criticism from officials throughout Greater Minnesota. Ted Herman, a Freeborn County Commissioner, said students that once could be back in school within an hour after a road test in Albert Lea now had to drive to Austin, Mankato or Rochester. “It’s definitely a three hour ordeal where you’re missing school,” Herman said. “That was a big hardship for our kids.”
It wasn’t just a pain for students, either. Farmers who hire seasonal drivers faced delays and extra costs, Herman said, and state legislators from the area said rural transit drivers were having a difficult time getting commercial licenses.
Earlier this year, the Legislature voted to temporarily reopen all stations and approved nearly $5.2 million over the next two years for the task, saying the distance and time for rural residents to reach larger cities for drivers exams was unacceptable.
But the future of the stations remains at a crossroads. While legislators made a few reforms to the license exam system, other longstanding issues — including staff shortages and test accessibility problems — haven’t been fully addressed.
Controversy over consolidation
A March 2021 report from Minnesota’s legislative auditor said DVS has long experienced “persistent staff shortages” at exam stations, an issue that was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. To make matters worse, when DVS closed its stations for two months in 2020 because of the pandemic, it also had to cancel more than 19,000 road tests for standard driver’s licenses, known as a Class D license. For reference, the auditor said the state conducted more than 136,000 Class D road tests in 2019.
To help clear the backlog when it reopened, DVS relied on roughly 1,800 hours of overtime by agency employees, an extraordinary effort from mid-May through June of 2020. But DVS also saved time and said it was able to run more drivers tests by consolidating to 15 locations, 14 of which ran road tests. Prior to the shutdown, staff generally didn’t work full time in the many stations in smaller towns and cities, and they burned time traveling from the larger hubs to places like Roseau, Ely, Wheaton, Slayton, Gaylord and Albert Lea. Many of the smaller exam stations were open just one day a week, or sometimes even less, said John Harrington, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, in a March 2021 letter to the auditor. DVS is part of the Public Safety department.
Even as he pledged in March to reopen exam stations “strategically,” Harrington said “consolidating DVS locations for health and safety reasons during the pandemic proved to be an unplanned pilot for centrally locating staff.”
“The data shows major efficiencies were achieved by this consolidated service delivery model, which fully staffed fewer locations,” he said.
Despite the advantages of a centralized staff, the new, less-is-more model angered legislators in areas where exam stations closed. Sen. Gene Dornink, a Republican from Hayfield southwest of Rochester who sponsored legislation to reopen the stations, said driving long distances is hard for people busy with work and can be expensive for lower-income people. “Driving is very important to our economy and to families and we’re kind of like, ‘Wow, this is a big deal,’” Dornink said.
Herman and Dornink said there was an outpouring of frustration from residents of Freeborn County in southern Minnesota along the Iowa border. The Albert Lea station has yet to reopen, though an Austin station reopened in November.
The auditor’s report said the closures also potentially ran afoul of state law. DVS must offer knowledge and road tests for Class D licenses either in or adjacent to every county in the state. The state wasn’t meeting that standard as of March 2021, when the auditor’s report was published.
State law also says DVS has to offer appointments for road tests within 14 days. DVS said only 34 percent of Class D road-test appointments between October 2019 and July 2020 were scheduled to happen within 14 days, though the state did not track whether exam customers had the option to schedule an appointment in the 14-day window but opted for a later time.
The auditor also identified other issues with the licensing exam program. For example, DVS wasn’t “systematically” forecasting demand for Class D road tests to help handle the workload, the report says.
Lawmakers make some changes, punt on others
At the end of its report, the legislative auditor’s office laid out the pros and cons of four potential changes to the driver’s license exam system meant to reduce wait times and improve convenience.
One was to expand the state’s testing capacity by allowing third-party organizations to run Class D road exams. Republicans have argued for that approach in the past, approving a bill in the GOP-led Senate in 2020 to allow the third-party tests. Another policy the auditor’s office examined was to expand third-party testing for commercial driver’s licenses, which would free up time for DVS to do Class D road tests. DVS supports this idea.
The legislative auditor said DVS could charge “no-show” fees to people who miss appointments, another policy the Senate approved in 2020 that was blocked by the DFL-led House.
Finally, the auditor said the state could raise the age of people required to take driver’s ed programs and behind-the-wheel instruction before getting a license. Right now, people 18 and older don’t need such instruction. The minimum age for getting a driver’s license is 16. Raising the age for required driver’s ed could lead to fewer people failing tests and needing to retake them, but it could also make getting a driver’s license more time-intensive and expensive for those who have to take the training.
DVS said most of the ideas would require legislative action, and Harrington in March said he opposed third-party testing for Class D licenses because it would take time and money to expand the program and monitor outside workers. It also could have an “impact on public safety,” he said.
The Public Safety department “will not place the chance for potential convenience over the safety of our teen drivers,” Harrington wrote.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, a Minneapolis DFLer who chairs the House Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, also said third party testers can be subject to a conflict of interest. (The legislative auditor said they might want to pass as many students as they can because the high approval rate can make them an attractive company.) “The House position was we don’t see a need to privatize these services,” Hornstein said.
Lawmakers did clarify a state law that authorizes online knowledge tests for Class D licenses as the auditor recommended. Legislators also created a $20 no-show fee for anyone who fails to appear for a test or cancels one within 24 hours.
But rather than settle other debates, notably the one over how many exam stations there should be in the future, lawmakers voted to reopen the exam stations for now and punted to another expert to come up with bigger solutions. “The best thing for us to do and the fairest thing on a very short-term interim basis is to keep these open and then figure out what to do,” Hornstein said.
In the long-term, Hornstein said his number one goal is “people shouldn’t have to wait months and months and months.”
“Number two they shouldn’t have to drive hundreds of miles to get a test,” he said. “This is a basic public service and it shouldn’t have to be complicated.”
‘Blue Ribbon’ group tasked with creating roadmap
The Legislature tasked Rick King, the most recent chairman of Gov. Tim Walz’s Blue Ribbon Council on Information Technology to review the costs, savings and “efficiencies” of closing stations, as well as the impacts of closing stations on license hopefuls. The council leader will also examine alternatives to exam station closures. King, the former Thomson Reuters Managing Director, has credibility with DFLers and Republicans, Hornstein said.
In 2019, the Blue Ribbon council convinced the state to scrap the maligned Minnesota Licensing and Registration system (MNLARS) and switch to the new “Minnesota Drive” vehicle title and registration system.
King said Thursday he planned to have long conversations with DVS starting Friday and spilling into this week, and he is preparing to visit exam stations in the fall. His plan is to look at the “big picture” and make “strong” and “shovel ready” recommendations for how the state should act to strengthen the system. That could include fewer exam stations. “I would say everything is on the table,” King said.
So far, King isn’t revealing his initial thoughts on what should be done. He said the group has a few hypotheses that need more testing, but he did say the system needs to be efficient and customers need to be able to make appointments in a reasonable amount of time that can be made and modified electronically and tracked on a mobile device. But he said they will also balance factors like convenience of location and how far people have to travel to access tests.
King said the group has commissioned a 50-state study to look at the frequency and geography of exam stations elsewhere and how those stations do with wait times and other issues. The council is also supposed to evaluate the new title and registration system, Minnesota Drive, as a whole.
The Blue Ribbon council’s recommendations won’t force lawmakers to act, though King said he was optimistic lawmakers will listen to their eventual report because they followed recommendations on MNLARS. “We’ve proven we can do it,” he said.
Herman, the Freeborn County Commissioner, said residents in his area made it clear they wanted the exam station in Albert Lea to reopen. So far, it remains closed with 70 other stations while DVS updates leases, relocates some stations and hires and trains 34 examiners.
Just because, say, Mankato has more residents doesn’t mean they’re entitled to better or more convenient services, Herman said. If the state is consolidating to save time or money, Herman said, people in his area need to have a voice in the debate “and not all the sudden be told ‘hey we’re cutting the services that you paid for.’ ”