'A madhouse': Crowded lobby, long wait times plague Fargo driver's license office

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FARGO — Leslie Satterlund of West Fargo left as an upset customer from the North Dakota driver's license office here, after bringing in her son for his written permit test.

They waited an hour and a half on Friday, June 15, after sitting even longer the day before, only to be sent away for not having the proper documents.

"There is no place to park, nowhere to sit inside, you are stifling in there, crammed like sardines," Satterlund said, referring to the office at 503 38th St. S., just off Interstate 29.

Heather Moline of Fargo had a similar experience with her daughter, also seeking a permit.

"It is a madhouse in there," Moline said.

Skip Evanson of West Fargo was frustrated about the wait to renew his driver's license.

"Why don't they change something to make it go faster?" he wondered.

The issue came to light through a recent letter and photo submitted to The Forum by Mark Lykken of Fargo, who was critical of the office and wrote that "North Dakota citizens deserve better."

The state Department of Transportation acknowledges the long wait times — especially at the Fargo and Bismarck offices.

Glenn Jackson, Drivers License Division director, said the Fargo office was averaging 225 to 250 customers a day in the spring. Customers during the first two weeks of March had to wait an average of just over 11 minutes to be served, according to figures provided by the DOT.

Now, 350 to 375 people are coming through daily, Jackson said. The average daily wait for the first two weeks of June was 58 minutes.

To save time, Jackson said they're offering more services online, such as license renewal and fee payment, and appointments can be made online for tests and office visits.

"You get there and you'll get moved ahead of the crowd, be taken care of and get out the door," Jackson said.

Seasonal spikes

Population growth is one factor in the heavier demand. So are seasonal trends, with more teens coming in during the summer to get permits and licenses, and commercial drivers looking to be certified.

In addition, seasonal workers are needing documents processed, and international students are seeking temporary credentials so they can drive here legally.

More people are also seeking a "REAL ID." That's the new form of identification that will be required to board aircraft and access federal facilities, starting in the fall of 2020.

Jackson said that process does take longer, but having an appointment for it helps.

The division recently expanded its online scheduling tool from five days, to four weeks out.

Ann Thomsen of Fargo can vouch for a better experience by making an appointment for her license renewal.

"They called me within three minutes, and I waited another 10-15 minutes for my license, and I'm done," she said.

Jackson wants customers to start thinking about a driver's license appointment like they do a visit to a doctor's or dentist's office, scheduling in advance.

"Truthfully, we don't want people waiting in line either," Jackson said.

Some have it worse

Those who think the Fargo wait times are unacceptable might take some comfort in what a few other offices in North Dakota are experiencing.

The DOT posts customer wait times on its website. In one snapshot on Friday afternoon, the Bismarck office showed a wait of 162 minutes, followed by a spike of 197 minutes.

The Williston office had a 101 minute wait, while the Fargo office displayed a 74 minute wait.

In addition to scheduling appointments ahead of time, customers can speed things along by ensuring they have every document they need with them, before they show up at the office.

All of those items are spelled out on the DOT website at https://www.dot.nd.gov/ and are displayed prominently on posters at the office.

Also, a driver's license can be renewed 10 months before it expires, so people don't have to wait until the last minute.

Jackson said his staff is doing an incredible job under the circumstances, and in many cases, going above and beyond.

For example, a supervisor arrived early Friday morning to accommodate a commercial driver who needed a road test, and let in more than 20 people who were standing in line before the office opened at 7:30 a.m.

Carissa Wigginton contributed to this report.