State driver's license scheduler Vicki Olfon on Thursday checked the current wait times in driver's license offices across North Dakota and reported that the numbers looked typical.
In Bismarck, which rarely sees wait times dip below the 60-minute mark, the current time was an hour. In Fargo, the current wait was 47 minutes. And in Grand Forks, it was zero.
The Grand Forks office is known by North Dakota Department of Transportation workers throughout the state for its minimal wait times. And it isn't uncommon for Fargo residents to consider saving time by making the two-hour round-trip drive to Grand Forks rather than waiting in their local office.
"Of course, I want to say that my Grand Forks coworkers are amazing, and they just run things like that," Olfon said. "But I just think that there isn't the big influx of people there coming into the state of North Dakota that there is in Bismarck and in Fargo. It just seems to run a lot smoother."
Friday afternoon, Grand Forks resident Patty Gerhardt walked into the Grand Forks Driver's License Site Office without an appointment. She came to replace her current license with a Real ID, which starting in October 2020 will be required to board airplanes and enter federal facilities.
She walked out with her new ID in hand about 15 minutes later – that's including the time spent chatting with the office employee who helped her, she added.
"It's very nice, it's convenient, it's pleasant, it's open," Gerhardt said. "It's good."
Olfon said the wait times in the afternoons are typically shorter than in the mornings because it's a less popular time to go.
One morning last week, a recent North Dakota transplant visited the driver's license office to obtain a state-issued license. After about a half-hour wait, then another 10 minutes at the service window, a new license was in hand within 40 minutes.
The supervisor of the Grand Forks driver's license office declined to speak with the Herald, citing NDDOT policy. But NDDOT Driver's License Division Supervisor Brad Schaffer said statewide changes being made by the NDDOT mean wait times in Grand Forks are poised to get even shorter.
At times, some Grand Forks staff are temporarily asked to help in Fargo. Schaffer said NDDOT is in the process of hiring more staff for the Fargo location, and soon a remodeling project at the Fargo office will be complete. The new space is larger and has more service windows. Olfon added that Fargo staff have recently moved their computers for permit testing off-site to a separate location.
With those changes, Olfon said she wouldn't be surprised if fewer Fargo people travel to Grand Forks. In addition to potentially fewer people waiting in line, Schaffer said the Grand Forks office will be fully-staffed more often, since there will be less need for Grand Forks workers to travel to Fargo as the Fargo office hires more staff.
Olfon said she still hears Fargo residents ask if it would be worth their time to drive to the Grand Forks office.
"And I say, you know, I don't think so. That's my advice," she said. "Obviously it's your choice, but the afternoons are pretty open and they're pretty clean, so I don't think a lot of people are doing that much anymore.
Added Schaffer: "People shouldn't have to go outside of their town to get whatever they need."
Schaffer also notes that one of NDDOT's most effective tools in keeping wait times low has been its online appointment system. By visiting the NDDOT website and scheduling an appointment, patrons of local driver's license offices can cut their wait time to zero. He also encouraged patrons to go online and ensure they have all the necessary documents ready. That will greatly expedite the process, he said.
Schaffer said that even as NDDOT aims to increase efficiency across the state, the Grand Forks office remains a model for how local driver's license offices in North Dakota should operate.
"The big reason why they're doing pretty well in Grand Forks is because they have enough staff," Schaffer said. "They're able to keep the windows open."