Nome DMV has temporarily suspended the availability of test drives
By Megan Ganon
Landon Wieler of Nome turned 16 in June. He hoped this milestone birthday would come with an American rite of passage: getting a driver’s license. He had had his driver’s license for a year and had spent time behind the wheel with instruction from his family. But when he tried to schedule a test drive through the Motor Vehicle Division salesman in Nome, he learned that none of those tests were available.
His mother, Cindy Wieler, was frustrated that they only found out about the lack of testing when they showed up for part two of a two-part date at the DMV’s private office. Wieler searched for local alternatives for her son in Nome but found herself empty. This week they flew to Kotzebue, where they were able to book a test drive at the state-run DMV three weeks later.
Although traveling means her son will miss three days of work, Wieler said she was lucky to have family who could put them up in Kotzebue and enough miles to buy their plane tickets. But she finds the lack of test drives “impractical” for a hub as large as Nome, which serves many outlying villages.
“It affects anyone in our area who wants to get a license,” Wieler said. She worried about possible lost job opportunities for people who needed a driver’s license to work. “It’s not very convenient to go ahead and pay for a plane ticket, hotel, car rental.”
Rolland Trowbridge, owner of Trinity Sails and Repair, the auto repair shop that served as a private provider offering DMV services for more than five years, said test drives are expected to resume shortly, starting next week.
“All I can say is the city needs to be patient,” Trowbridge said. “There was a bit of a delay, but it’s not permanent.”
He said the lack of test drives was due to a paperwork issue he’s had with the state since about May. He said the company he used to underwrite insurance for his test drives recently pulled out of Alaska. TSR had to find a new insurer and file new documents with the state. He said the person handling his state case had changed jobs and the recertification process for road tests had taken longer than expected.
In a statement to The nugget of NomeAlaska DMV Director Jeffrey Schmitz did not go into specific detail about the paperwork issue.
“In order to offer road skill testing, the DMV must obtain specific paperwork to renew both the road skill examiner and installation licenses,” Schmitz said. “DMV is working with Trinity Sails on a few outstanding items which, when received, will enable Trinity Sails to resume offering non-commercial road skill testing.”
Trowbridge said it has no plans to become the sole DMV service provider in Nome. He said he started offering these services as part of his auto business because the Nome DMV sometimes took six to eight months to complete paperwork related to buying and selling vehicles.
“If people wanted to go through us, we charged $30 per transaction to do that, and it was so, so bad here that people were paying the extra $30 so they didn’t have to wait for the local DMV,” Trowbridge said. .
TSR became its agent in May 2019.
Schmitz confirmed that there are other cities in Alaska that rely on commissioned agents instead of state-run offices to provide DMV services, including Anderson, Utqiagvik, Cordova, Craig, Dillingham, Glennallen, King Salmon, Petersburg, Seward, Talkeetna, Unalaska, Wrangell and Yakutat. However, many of these offices are operated by local public entities, such as police departments and municipal governments. Generally, a commissioned agent is supposed to be open at least 20 hours a week, three days a week, and at least two hours a day, Schmitz said. “During these opening hours, the [commissioned agent] must offer the same services one would receive from a state-run DMV, such as issuing driver’s licenses and ID cards, processing motor vehicle titles, boat transactions , snowmobiles, ATVs and other motor vehicles, as well as driving road skills tests,” says Schmitz.
Trowbridge said operating the DMV was not a source of income for him and he would gladly give the contract to the city or Kawerak or any other organization willing to take the job. Still, he expressed pride in keeping an employee who has been Nome’s DMV agent for nearly three years now. Trowbridge said DMV’s previous office had a high turnover rate in its last decade of operations in Nome.
Ken Truitt, spokesman for the Alaska Department of Administration, confirmed that staffing is a chronic issue for the DMV. Truitt said at this time last year, the DMV was operating with a staff vacancy rate of about 22%. “Once they have staff, the turnover rate is pretty high,” Truitt said. Because DMV employees earn some of the lowest pay rates among public employees in Alaska, Truitt describes the division as a gateway to better government jobs.