ST. JOHNSBURY — Vermont’s Department of Motor Vehicles has no plan to return in-person operations at the Green Mountain Mall.
Located across from the soon-to-close JCPenney and adjacent to space recently vacated by the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce, the DMV office has been closed since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged.
The door to the office, accessed from inside the mall, bears a taped notice that states, “In person transactions are suspended until further notice.” It’s been there for over 13 months. Inside the office, all furniture remains, including rows of chairs that were filled with people most Thursdays pre-pandemic when the staff members were assisting people with their motoring needs.
Outside the mall “reserved” parking signs are posted near a handful of vehicle spaces exclusively for people there for DMV business. It’s where people looking to take their driver’s license road test would park in anticipation of their test-taking drives.
Things appear to be in place for resumption of the local once-a-week DMV operations, but officials are not committing to a return.
DMV Commissioner Wanda Minoli said in an email that a decision about the future is in the works for DMV offices in St. Johnsbury and in other locations throughout the state.
“We are in the process of evaluating all five satellite locations (St J, St Albans, Middlebury, Dummerston, and Hartford) to determine the best options for in-person services and whether returning to the previous operational system for the satellite offices is still effective and efficient for the State and our customers,” she said.
DMV locations that are open closest to St. Johnsbury are Montpelier and Newport City. The office in Newport City has been open since October. At the time, Minolli said the reopening of satellite locations like St. Johnsbury would be dependent on how well things went in Newport City, Bennington and Springfield. That was nearly seven months ago, and those operations continue with COVID precautions in place.
Minolli said ahead of the October reopening in Newport City that the effectiveness of safety measures related to the pandemic would be evaluated and then office spaces like St. Johnsbury would be assessed for possible reopening.
Fast-forward to today, and the consideration of whether to open up the St. Johnsbury office has less to do with the pandemic and more to do with what the DMV has deployed for online services, transitioning certain former in-person business to the internet.
“A significant improvement that spurred from the pandemic is the increase in services now available online,” said Minolli. “This has resulted in considerably less demand for in-person services.”
Despite not utilizing the space in St. Johnsbury, the state has paid mall owner Mark Healy to be there. The lease payment is $24,000 per year. Minolli said a clause in the lease agreement allows the state to leave the space if it chooses to not re-open.
The St. Johnsbury DMV location has been at the mall for almost six years. Prior to that, the DMV set up a weekly operation at the Elks Club in St. Johnsbury for many years.
Minolli said reliance on the in-person DMV experience has diminished through technology and the process is working well.
“Accessibility and user-friendliness are at an all-time high, with additional online systems and services that were developed throughout the pandemic to enable customers to do their business right at their own computer,” Minolli said.
She said allowing for more DMV business to happen online increased the number of transactions, which led to extended wait times for some customers. That she said has been remedied through the hiring of additional staff members and some new procedures.
One of the DMV services that still require in-person connection is a road test to get a driver’s license. Through the DMV the closest options for the local area are Newport City or Montpelier. An allowance has been made for certain “third party examiners” to conduct the road tests, but in most cases, those examiners are only available to drivers who have taken the driver’s education course from the examiner.
It is that way for local instructor Gary Thornton, of St. Johnsbury, who said he has road-tested close to 100 of his driver’s ed students in the last year.
One of the features to emerge in response to the pandemic is online appointment scheduling at the DMV’s open locations, which has resulted in reduced wait times.
The online vehicle registration system enables customers who purchase vehicles to acquire a temporary registration and temporary plate. The temporary plate and registration are printed by customers at their own computer and are valid for 60 days.
DMV eliminated the requirement to have a VIN visually verified, which required a customer to bring their unregistered vehicle to DMV or have a local police department conduct the verification before registration. This was made possible by Vermont becoming a member of the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS).
All licenses are now renewable in an online form.
The DMV also added learner’s permit tests to the list of online services. The online test is for standard learner’s permits and motorcycles, not for commercial vehicles.