Bypass mail likely to be addressed by reform

The U.S. Postal Service recently announced an end to Saturday delivery. People will stop receiving letters on Saturdays by the end of summer.

A postal reform bill is expected before then, and bypass mail will likely be targeted for reforms.

Seven short words in Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution assure that everyone in Alaska will receive their mail.

The Congress shall, the Constitution reads, “establish Post Offices, and post Roads.”

In 1971 Congress mandated a sea change: The postal service now needed to function as a self-sustaining business – without federal dollars.

A year later came another change: bypass mail. The Postal Service would pay private air carriers to deliver mail and packaged goods to bush communities in Alaska … bypassing the Postal Service completely.

Steven Hatter is deputy commissioner at the Alaska Department of Transportation. He says state does not pay anything for bypass mail.

“It’s just a really important component to serving rural Alaska. It cuts across the private sector. It cuts across state government. There are other agencies besides Alaska Department of Transportation that both benefit from and are interested in the long term outcome of policy with bypass mail,” Hatter says.

The public policy Hatter mentions is federal. Bypass mail is a partnership between the Postal Service and federal Department of Transportation.

DOT sets the rates, and the Postal Service pays for the program. It’s bleeding money, and it has been since the program began. A USPS inspector general report showed the bypass system lost more than seventy million dollars in 2010.

“There are some inherent inefficiencies in it,” Hatter says.

Darrell Issa is a San Diego area Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Long a critic of bypass mail, he now says the government needs to maintain the program.

Issa traveled to and around Alaska last year … without any of the Alaska Congressional delegation alongside him. He came back a convert … saying he sees the necessity of the program.

One of the bypass inefficiencies he’s looking to change is the requirement that planes carry both freight and people.

The Post Office pays four large carriers and twenty-two smaller ones to deliver the packages.

In turn, it assures a steady stream of flights to smaller airports. Critics say it subsidizes the aviation industry – at a cost to anyone who pays for stamps. Postage is the only way the Post Office makes money.

Issa says he’ll look at the frequency of flights and which planes the carriers are sending to different airports.

“Where you have small amounts, the dual use makes a lot of sense,” Issa says.

Because, he says, if there’s not much mail, it makes sense to sell more seats.

“In some cases where you have a 737of freight going every single day, it may not make sense to make sure there are seats on every single flight,” Issa says.

Issa did not say whether he’d push to require the state to contribute to the program.

The notion alone scares Steven Hatter.

“We don’t really want to get into ‘what ifs’ in terms of the state picking up any subsidies at some point,” Hatter says.

People on Capitol Hill say a reform bill will need to come before July. Last Congress, the Senate passed a version – only to see it founder in the House.

Senator Mark Begich says he’s ready to make another go.

“I will do everything I can to ensure that what we passed last year, which protected bypass mail, will pass this year,” Begich says.

But the real fight in postal reform won’t be whether the Post Office pays for a program it doesn’t operate, but over congressional requirements that the Postal Service pay future benefits for future retirees.

 

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