Is the Postal Service about to vanish into the dusts of time with the Pony Express?
Probably not. The US mail dates back to the nation’s founding and still handles 177 billion letters, catalogs, bills, and packages every year. The Pony Express existed for only about 18 months in the 1860s.
But in today’s FedEx and email era, the Postal Service’s volume has been declining rapidly. Now its leaders are increasing the pressure on Congress to allow big changes in how the US mail is handled – including the ending of Saturday deliveries.
“What we wanted to do in the Postal Service is to be realistic that this is occurring,” Postmaster General John Potter told reporters Monday.
On Tuesday, Mr. Potter is overseeing a conference on the service’s future. Among the changes he is proposing are an end to the old six-day mail delivery model and more flexibility in setting delivery schedules, prices, and labor costs.
Postal leaders pleaded for some of these moves last year, but they have yet to persuade lawmakers to go along.
The problem is that there is more competition than ever today to carry the nation’s stuff back and forth between its people. Last year’s 177 billion-piece mail volume contrasts with the 213 billion pieces of mail carried by the Postal Service as recently as 2006.
And the mail won’t pick up again when the economy rebounds. By 2020, mail volume will be 150 billion pieces of mail annually, according to Postal Service projections.
Yet mail carriers today have the burden of taking fewer and fewer pieces of mail to more and more homes and businesses. The USPS today has 150 million delivery points, up from 135 million in 2000, according to its 2009 annual report. (For Monitor coverage of a money-saving proposal to switch the USPS to electric vehicles, click here.)
The result of this spread is a flood of red ink. The USPS lost $297 million in the fourth quarter of 2009, which is usually profitable due to holiday mailings. It's projected to lose up to $7 billion in 2010, Potter announced Tuesday.
Will US residents rise up in revolt at the possibility that they won’t be getting Wisteria catalogs, gas bills, and wedding invitations delivered on the weekend?
Probably not. A Gallup poll taken last year found 66 percent of respondents were OK with the move, considering the service’s financial problems.
A majority of respondents were also in favor of reduced hours at their local post office. But don’t try closing that building down. Fully 88 percent opposed any attempt to close the post office nearest to them.
The Postal Service is one of the few government agencies explicitly authorized by the US Constitution. It was reorganized into a quasi-independent institution in 1970.
And the Pony Express? This year marks its 150th anniversary. They’ll celebrate that beginning April 1 at the Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph, Mo.