More than two-thirds of Minnesota’s 93 driver’s license exam stations — all of which were shuttered during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic — remain closed, state officials said Friday, despite a law passed in June dictating the government reopen them.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety said only 26 exam stations, where people take road and knowledge tests, are open. Though commissioner John Harrington pledged at a Senate hearing to have them all open by the end of January, the slow reopening process has frustrated GOP lawmakers. The lack of stations has forced people in Greater Minnesota to drive vast distances and face long wait times for regular driver’s licenses or to obtain special truck or bus driver credentials.
Harrington said opening exam stations was now the top priority of the agency’s Driver and Vehicle Services division (DVS), but he also said state officials have had trouble hiring workers and fixing problems with building leases.
“We, like every other employer in the state and the country, are struggling to get enough staff to meet the needs that we have,” Harrington said. “There isn’t a restaurant, store or business that doesn’t have a ‘help wanted’ sign in front of it right now and unfortunately DVS is also subject to those same economic forces trying to get people to get people to work in this job.”
In March of 2020, Minnesota shut down all of its exam stations, leading to the cancellation of 19,000 scheduled road tests. Two months after the closures, DVS reopened 15 exam stations, and loaded up on staff overtime to clear an enormous backlog of tests.
The state said it found consolidation to be more efficient in some ways, allowing DVS to churn through exams at centralized locations. When all the stations were open, the state had many “satellite” locations where staff didn’t live but would drive to from larger hub cities to run tests for a couple days each week. Harrington pledged in a March letter this year to reopen exam stations “strategically,” but he also suggested some consolidation could be a good thing for the beleaguered system that had dealt with backups and staff shortages even before the pandemic.
Lawmakers, however, pushed for the state to reopen all the testing sites, saying the distance people had to travel for a basic government service was unacceptable. They passed a law in June that gave the state nearly $5.2 million to temporarily reopen all stations, and also ordered a study of the system to guide how the agency should operate its exam stations in the future.
In late July, a Public Safety spokesman reported that 71 of the state’s 93 license exam stations were closed, meaning only a few have reopened since.
Harrington said the main priority for DVS has been getting its “Minnesota Drive” vehicle title and registration system up and running, but has shifted gears toward the exam stations issue now.
Pong Xiong, the director of DVS, told lawmakers at the hearing Friday in the Senate’s Transportation Finance and Policy Committee that the state hopes to have 32 exam stations open by the end of November, 41 open by the end of December, and all stations open by Jan. 31.
Xiong said the leases of 38 stations had expired or needed to be renegotiated, which is one major cause of the backup. Harrington said leases lapsed after the state closed offices last March, in part because the state didn’t know how long they might be closed and because taxpayers were on the hook for the part-time operations. “We had to consider whether or not the business needs and the funding for keeping a station that was only open one day a week, but we were paying for lease space and others for more time than that, was a good use of taxpayer dollars,” Harrington said.
The other hurdle has been finding employees. Harrington said the agency doesn’t have a signing bonus to offer and can’t raise salaries in the same way private businesses can. “We’re going to have to do what we can to try to entice people to come to work,” Harrington said. “And sometimes we’re going to ask them to come to work in Greater Minnesota where they’re going to have to work in one station one day and then drive maybe hours to get to the other exam stations so they can be open another day.”
Local government officials and people who represent truck and school bus drivers spoke at the hearing Friday, saying the few exam stations and backups have caused headaches in their industries, which are experiencing high demand for drivers.
Scott McMahon, a lobbyist for the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association, said school districts are facing one of the “worst driver shortages we’ve ever had.” In a recent survey of the industry, McMahon said the distance people have to drive to get licenses was a huge issue.
“When a candidate comes in to become a school bus driver and they’re told they’re going to have to drive an hour or an hour and a half away to go take a test, they turn around and walk out the door,” he said. “We are optimistic that as more sites get opened that pressure point will start to go away.”
Sen. Scott Newman, a Republican from Hutchinson who chairs the Transportation Finance and Policy Committee, said many lawmakers have received complaints about the “slow reopening of the 93 testing stations that we had provided funding for.”
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said bus drivers and truckers demonstrated the license issue is a “crisis” and said a plan for reopening all stations by January of 2022 isn’t fast enough. “I’m just not hearing enough of a sense of urgency,” Kiffmeyer said.