The postal service is slipping away


On many days, it seems as though the things I like best about our country are all under attack: public lands, the Bill of Rights, passenger trains and the U.S. Postal Service. Especially if you live in the boondocks of the West, the Postal Service means more to you than it does to most urban residents.

For one thing, if you keep chickens,  you probably look forward to the sounds of peeping and chirping from the mail truck as the carrier delivers a box of just-hatched poultry. Because the nearest pharmacy might be even farther away than the feed store, you may get your prescription medicine by mail. Even your FedEx and UPS parcels might be delivered to your door by the Postal Service, because the USPS often handles the “last mile” for deliveries by private express companies. And because you're less likely to enjoy a high-speed Internet connection, you may pay your bills by mailing a check rather than going online.

Besides, even though you sometimes grumble about the line at the post office, you generally don't mind the wait, since it's a chance to catch up on local gossip as you stand amid your friends and neighbors.

But all that could change soon, and not for the better. The volume of lucrative first-class mail continues to decline as more transactions are completed online. Also, the Postal Service, alone among federal agencies, must meet an annual financial obligation of more than $5 billion, imposed by Congress, to fund future retiree health-care costs. Although the USPS has laid off more than 100,000 employees in recent years, it's been running in the red and must further cut costs to remain solvent. That means hundreds of rural post offices could close while service would be reduced at those remaining.

Every post office flies the U.S. flag, which is appropriate because the Postal Service has been one of those things that binds us together as Americans. It serves all of us, even when the mail must be transported by mule to the Havasupai of Arizona, or dropped by parachute from an airplane over the Alaska backcountry.

It actually predates the United States, with Benjamin Franklin running a postal service among the 13 British colonies of 1775, a year before the Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Constitution of 1787 gave Congress the power "To establish Post Offices and Post Roads." That provision encouraged the development of America's transportation infrastructure, as canals and railways were defined as "Post Roads" eligible for federal subsidy, and politics often played a role.

One example is the town of Breckenridge, now a ski resort about 70 miles west of Denver, Colo. It began in 1859 as "Fort Meribeh," a gold-mining camp in an almost inaccessible location. It needed a road, but couldn't afford to build one.

Its pioneers devised a plan. Change the name of the place to honor John Cabell Breckinridge, vice-president of the United States, then apply for a post office -- and certainly the vice-president would pull a few strings to make that happen, since the town was named after him. Once there was a post office, the government would have to build a Post Road to serve it, and everybody would be able to use the road.

The plan worked. The hitch came in 1861 when John C. Breckinridge decided to join the Confederacy. The Union-leaning miners of Colorado Territory responded by changing the spelling of their town's name to Breckenridge. By then, though, it already had its road and post office.

But roads and buildings are just part of the infrastructure resulting from the postal system. Newspapers and magazines and mail-order enterprises, as well as direct-mail solicitations for votes and donations, often even voting itself -- all rely on the Postal Service.

But when looking at ways to save money, the Postal Service almost seems to be trying to drive away business. For instance, there's a proposal to switch from six-day service to five-day service, eliminating Saturday mail deliveries. Routine Saturday service is something that competitors like UPS and FedEx don't offer, giving the USPS an edge.

And then there are proposals to close roughly 10 percent of America's 38,000 post offices;  487 of those being considered are in the West and most serve rural towns. Having a post office is a big part of community identity, and it's certainly a convenience to be able to send a package or a certified letter without having to drive 20 or 30 miles. Boxholders either rent from a remaining post office, or get “home delivery” that might be several miles away,

The USPS says some of those rural post offices can be replaced with "village post offices." These run out of existing businesses, like convenience stores or grocers, and at first glance seem like a return to the traditional general store that included a post office. Village post offices can sell stamps, accept mail, and offer boxes for rent. But they won't handle parcels (except for the "if it fits it ships" variety), and they won't offer return receipts, certified letters and the like. Making it more difficult for people to do business with you is hardly a way to increase your business.

Another money-saving proposal -- closing about half the mail processing centers -- requires some explanation. The town where I live, Salida, Colo., is a postal sectional center. As it is, mail from a large area, from Canon City 65 miles to the east, to Lake City, 130 miles to the southwest, comes here to be processed every night. What doesn't go to nearby places whose zipcodes start with "812" goes out to other sectional centers around the state in Alamosa, Durango, Montrose, Glenwood Springs, Denver, etc.

The USPS proposes to close all the sectional centers in Colorado except for Denver and Grand Junction, which will get all the sorting machinery. All mail, even if it's just a birthday card to somebody down the street, will be trucked to one or the other. In-town service will go from overnight to two days or even longer.

The Postal Service theory is that this will give maximum benefit from those expensive sorting machines by running them 20 hours a day in the city instead of two or three hours a day in the boondocks. But any engineer will tell you that a dispersed system with many nodes is more robust and thus more reliable than a centralized system.

All of these changes mean that mail service will get worse, especially for residents of the rural West. Bad service will drive more business away, and the downward spiral will accelerate.

Congress caused this problem, and Congress could fix it. You can encourage that by buying a few stamps and writing your senators and representative, urging them to support the 21st Century Postal Service Act.

The USPS may not be perfect, but it reflects a belief that it's important for a great nation to have a great postal system, and that there are some things that a government should do, even if they don't quite pay for themselves.

Ed Quillen writes from Salida, Colo.

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