Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Tucson, Congress need to butt out of USPS downsizing plan

The U.S. Postal Service this week announced that it will go through with plans to close its Cherrybell mail processing plant here. Phoenix will now process Tucson’s mail.

The net effect of that on Tucson will mean a first class letter will arrive at its intended destination about a day later than usual.

That’s hardly cause for the garment rending and teeth gnashing by Tucson’s political leaders the past few weeks.

The elimination of about 150 jobs is despairing yet necessary if the USPS is to survive and continue its critical role in American society and economy.

The USPS is in trouble. It’s losing billions of dollars a year. The U.S. government doesn’t want to subsidize mail delivery. It wants mail users to pay for the cost of delivery.

The inefficient and labor-intensive processing system must change if the USPS is to survive. To do that, it has come up with a modernization plan that will eliminate about half of its nearly 500 processing plants. It also wants to close rural post offices, eliminate Saturday mail delivery and make a handful of other reforms in order to save about $20 billion in annual operating costs by 2015.

Standing in the way are numerous members of Congress spurred on by local and state leaders who want the USPS to reform its operations elsewhere. It’s kind of a reverse NIMBYism. Call it KIMBYism for Keep It In My Backyard.

But the Congress suffers from multiple personality disorder when it comes to the mail. It wants the USPS to pay its own way but it doesn’t want it to raise postal rates, close any facilities or layoff any mail workers, especially not in an election year.

When USPS leaders explain their problem and plans to solve it, it’s as if the Congress sticks its fingers in it ears and says “la la la la la, I can’t hear you, la la la la.”

Corporations are lobbying hard to keep postal rates low while the postal workers union is lobbying hard to preserve jobs. The USPS can’t do both.

The fact is, few Americans actually use the USPS. The overwhelming majority of mailed communication, first class or otherwise, is by business, mostly advertisements, then catalogs and bills.

Blame it on the digital age. The digital transformation is having profound effects on many industries. It’s an effect well known to TucsonCitizen.com where three years ago this editorial would have been written in a bustling newsroom of about 70 people. Instead it was written in a small, quiet office by one of the company’s three remaining employees.

Most of the communication we used to do via the mail is now done via the Internet. People send personal communications, photos, cards and letters via e-mail and social media and more people every year are using the Internet to pay bills or do their banking.

This digital transformation is only accelerating and will further reduce the volume of mail and therefore the number of postal carriers, postal processing centers and post offices needed to deliver it.

Yet there will likely be a need for USPS for many decades to come. Many Americans still can’t afford or don’t want to be part of the digital age and many written communications will still need to be hand delivered.

But the USPS doesn’t need a  bloated, inefficient system to handle that diminishing amount of mail. Like all industries affected by the digital revolution, it needs to downsize and the Congress needs to let it.

Either that, or all those KIMBYs clamoring to keep their processing centers and preserve the USPS like it was still 1980 need to open their wallets and pay up.

About a $1 a stamp ought to do it.

[Ed. Note: A few weeks ago, the Star mistakenly published on its op/ed page a flippant blog post I wrote about the wisdom of closing Cherrybell. The article spurred about 50 people to express their disagreement with my conclusions and their displeasure with me and a few of my ancestors. A little less than half of those communications came by telephone. About 20 came by e-mail and 8 came via the U.S. mail. I can think of few better ways than that to illustrate the point of the trouble the USPS is in and why it needs to reduce the size of its operation.]

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