Back on March 27, 2020, the state, specifically the Department of Public Safety (DPS), closed its 93 exam stations and cancelled 19,000 scheduled exams due to the COVID pandemic. Today, State Senator Mark Johnson (R-East Grand Forks) is expressing his concern with the slowness in the reopening of these stations when COVID restrictions were lifted.
Area driver’s exam stations, such as in Crookston, East Grand Forks, Hallock, Thief River Falls, and Roseau, remain closed in Minnesota to testing, as part of the more than 70 stations closed as of August. (More updated numbers will be provided in this piece.)
This issue comes about after the state legislature passed a transportation omnibus bill on June 26, 2021 to reopen all 93 of its exam stations. The original bill was set at $2.6 million, according to Senator Johnson’s office.
Senator Johnson discussed this issue, including the reasons behind the slow reopening, what he’s hearing from his constituents about it, and the importance of this issue to him. Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) Commissioner John Harrington and the state’s new Director for Driver and Vehicle Services Pong Xiong addressed the effort to reopen these stations at a Senate Transportation Committee hearing.
During this October 15 hearing, Commissioner Harrington expressed that the plan to reopen these exam stations was a “top priority” at the state’s Department of Vehicle Services (DVS)— a department that falls under his umbrella.
Asked about some of the area stations in his district, such as Crookston, East Grand Forks, Hallock, Thief River Falls, Roseau, Senator Johnson confirmed that these stations are still closed to testing— causing both new drivers and CDL drivers to travel further for testing.
“Their kid needs to get a driver’s license. They’re driving down to Bemidji most of them, Detroit Lakes some of them, whatever is open and has an opening to it,” Senator Johnson said. “The other huge issue right now is CDL drivers, because they also have to go down to Bemidji or Detroit Lakes or Moorhead to try to find somebody that’s open that can actually administer that driving test with the CDL.”
Senator Johnson highlighted how this CDL issue comes as there’s a desperation for truck drivers. He said these individuals trying to get their CDL license are currently having to not only take the day off to go take this test, but also have to bring a licensed CDL driver along with them to go take this test.
“Okay, you said you want to get this going. How are we going to do it? We gave DPS money to open them up. We told them that they had to open them up,” Senator Johnson said. “And yet they’re still dragging their feet on opening up these testing facilities, so that’s where this really came from.”
Harrington said he has also heard for individuals on this issue. The department has heard from farmers trying to figure out CDL tests for truck drivers to allow them to get their crops in. It has heard from school districts asking about school bus drivers’ tests to allow them to get their students to school. The department has also heard from parents inquiring about finding a driver’s test for their children, expressing their desire to not have to travel a long distance for this.
“They’re (parents) sometimes frustrated by how many availabilities we have open and I want you to know we understand their frustration,” Harrington said, “and that DVS has been responding by staying open later, staying open on weekends. We freed up space at 100 spots for our testing capacity. And so we are doing everything we can to try and meet as many of the public’s needs that we’re aware of.”
Throughout Minnesota, it has hub locations that serve satellite locations. Thief River Falls and Bemidji serve as the northwest area’s (Area 10’s) two regional hubs. The satellite locations of Roseau and Hallock are served by the Thief River Falls regional hub.
According to a presentation given by Xiong at the hearing, on May 19, 2020, 15 exam stations—all regional hubs— reopened; this included Bemidji, but not Thief River Falls. From November 2020 through March 2021, 10 more exam stations—all regional hubs— reopened, but this still did not include Thief River Falls, according to information provided by the Office of the Legislative Auditor for an August 9, 2021 MINNPOST article titled, “Why the future of Minnesota’s driver’s license exam stations remains in limbo” by Walker Orenstein.
Harrington expressed how the department is committed to getting 100 percent of these exam stations open “as soon as possible.” He expects many of these exam stations to be open by the fall and all of them by January.
Currently, the department has 26 exam stations open. It anticipates having 32 open by the end of November, 41 by the end of December, and all by the end of January 2021, according to Xiong.
To view this committee hearing, visit the following link: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Trpn52icqPU&t=13s .
To see the complete story, read the October 20 issue of The Tribune or the October 21 issue of the North Star News in print or online.