Facing pressure from lawmakers, DMV says it’s still not ready to resume walk-in service

Senators push for reopening

By: - August 6, 2021 12:01 am

A security guard exits DMV headquarters in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A year and a half into the pandemic, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles is still operating on an appointment-only basis.

Some state lawmakers, angered by wait times that can last months, say it’s time for that to change.

“I get complaints all the time about DMV and people not being able to get in,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, during a floor debate in the Senate this week. “My license has been expired for three months, just to give you one example.”

Petersen successfully persuaded his colleagues in the Senate to insert language into the budget lawmakers are debating in a special session that started this week which would require the DMV to immediately resume walk-in service.

The measure still has to get past the House of Delegates and Gov. Ralph Northam, who ultimately oversees the DMV as head of the executive branch. And the DMV has made clear it’s not ready to go back to the packed waiting rooms that were a hallmark of its pre-pandemic operations.

In response to the Senate’s push for a full reopening, DMV leaders counter that they’re actually operating more efficiently and serving more customers than before the pandemic thanks to a shift to more online and over-the-phone services while keeping employees safe by limiting in-person services to people with timed appointments.

State Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City.

A DMV spokeswoman, Jessica Cowardin, said the agency processed 388,000 transactions last week, up from 309,000 per-week before the pandemic began.

Cowardin also said feedback from customers suggests most people actually like the appointment-only model, citing an internal survey that found 77 percent of customers wanted the agency to continue offering appointments.

“By installing an appointment system we have become more efficient, transactions are conducted quickly and customer wait times have been minimized,” she wrote in an email. “And appointment availability will continue to increase as we are able to hire and train employees and emerge more fully from the pandemic, which is still ongoing.”

Lawmakers in the Senate say that if other public-facing government services can fully reopen, so should the DMV. “I remind you that in two weeks, we are going to send 1.2 million school children back into school buildings,” Petersen said.

Petersen, a Democrat with a contrarian streak, drew pushback largely from members of his own party, who argued that with more contagious variants of COVID-19 spreading, now might not be the time to fill up DMV waiting rooms.

“I think it would be very unwise with all of the uncertainties to require DMV employees to come into work,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, who chairs the Senate’s budget committee. “And I would predict that the upshot would be that we might lose a lot of very good employees as a result.”

But in the narrowly divided chamber, the measure drew enthusiastic support from Republicans.

Sen. Richard Stewart, R-Stafford, called it “the most practical and best idea I’ve seen since I’ve been in Richmond this week.”

Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Fauquier, meanwhile, lamented the inconvenience the new appointment system has caused. “We are making people’s lives miserable.”

Several people entering the DMV’s headquarters in Richmond for appointments on Thursday seemed to agree with the sentiment.

As she dropped her mom off for an appointment, Pashyn Perry said she had tried to help renew her license online but was ultimately instructed to make an in-person appointment. She said the wait was three months and her mom was unwilling to drive during the time because her license was expired.

“If you have to get something done, I’d rather go in there and sit and wait an hour rather than two or three months,” Perry said.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.