It's time to downsize the mail

People's attachment to post offices is a peculiar thing. Regulars who do business or pick up their mail from locked boxes at the same place day after day don't like their routine being upset.

Anyone who doubts that should have heard the ruckus in Gales Ferry, where the complaining only recently subsided when the village's post office finally reopened.

The postal service had to temporarily shutter the red-brick building off Military Highway last fall after a drenching storm caved in its roof and water seeped inside.

For the four months it took to complete the repairs, Gales Ferry customers had to make "the steep and winding 10-mile round-trip" to the Ledyard Center Post Office to tend to postal needs. That inconvenience, described in one of many letters to editor about the temporary closure of the village post office, seemingly speaks volumes about the predicament the U.S. Postal Service is now in.

Last week Postmaster General John Potter outlined the burgeoning debt the USPS is facing - a $7 billion budget shortfall this year that is expected to balloon to $238 billion by 2020. Among the suggested remedies: higher fees starting next year and no more Saturday mail delivery.

But if you delve more deeply into the postal service's 10-year plan to address declining revenues and volumes it becomes evident the postal service is too big given the reality that business is shrinking. The 67-page report, "The Challenge to Deliver, Creating the 21st Century Postal Service," is available on the USPS Web site.

One problem is too many post offices. The postal service has 33,264 properties, or more than 292.5 million square feet of real estate. That's a lot of room to sell stamps and rent out mail boxes. Connecticut is home to 227 of those post offices. Why in a state of just 169 cities and towns are there 58 more post offices than municipalities? There are nearly three times more post offices in Connecticut than Stop & Shop supermarkets, which number 87.

No wonder the postal service is struggling to survive.

It also faces the daunting challenge of living up to its promise of delivering mail to the 149 million residences, businesses and mail boxes in every state, city, town and borough in America and all its territories, like American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the Marshall and U.S. Virgin islands. Which makes me think 44 cents for a first-class letter is not such a bad deal after all.

But despite that promise of home delivery, many Americans, including 350 of the Gales Ferry customers, opt for P.O. boxes instead, forgoing the home or business delivery and collecting their mail at the post office instead.

But with first-class and standard mail on the decline since 2002 - volume tumbled 12.7 percent last year alone - it is getting harder for the postal service to survive. The Internet is taking a whack at all kinds of businesses, including newspapers, travel agents, and yes, the post office, too. People pay bills online, they read magazines and books on electronic devices and very, very few people send letters anymore, they e-mail instead.

The post office has been around since the naming of Benjamin Franklin as the first postmaster general in 1775. And it has evolved over the centuries, with advances like automation, zip codes, even the introduction of self-adhesive stamps in 1992. But this latest challenge is forcing the postal service to make some drastic changes, and perhaps one of them should be making better use of all those post offices.

It's something the postmaster general hasn't ruled out and which conjures up all kinds of possibilities for all that postal real estate. According to The Wall Street Journal, the USPS' post offices contain more space than the combined retail outlets of McDonald's Corp., Starbucks Corp., Walgreen Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Banks have moved into supermarkets and opticians are now in big box retailers, so maybe it's time for the post office to consolidate, too.

They could shutter some of those redundant post offices - there are four post offices within about a 10-mile stretch from the Rhode Island border to Mystic - and move others into the banks and big box stores.

Or, if they opt to keep them open, they'll need to diversify. Computer sales and repair, maybe?

Ann Baldelli is associate editorial page editor.

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