Article I Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority “To Establish Post Offices and Post Roads”. Like most enumerated powers of the Constitution, this was not a suggestion to Congress, but a responsibility. However, in the age of email, UPS, FedEx and DHL, both the monopoly and the seeming necessity of the post office have diminished. USPS is now seeking to lay off as many as 120,000 workers and close 3,700 post office locations.
USPS, much like its private-public cousin Amtrak, is stuck in an uncomfortable position. It is a public entity providing an essential service and monitored by the federal government in the process. At the same time, it is largely expected to run as a for-profit corporation. That seems to be a broken system, that leaves essential government-owned infrastructure both unable to keep up with private competitors, and underfunded to serve locations and needs that cannot be properly met on a for-profit model.
Despite the presence of email and other private delivery services, USPS still provides an essential service. It links communities and the people within to the outside world, as well as providing critical jobs. USPS is also a national and cultural icon, uniting a diverse nation together. Given that the post office finds its roots in one of the rare enumerated powers of the US Constitution, subsidizing the USPS and spearheading its modernization is something the Tea Party would finally be right to scream about.
While I am not a logistics expert, USPS with its world’s largest civilian fleet of 218,684 vehicles, has a huge transportation problem, as much as anything else. The Infrastructurist wisely suggested that USPS must modernize its vehicle fleet and emphasize fuel efficiency, ASAP. I could not agree more.
I believe access to the post office is critical, especially for the poor and for the elderly. One area where the postal service can save money long term is in fuel costs (especially as gasoline prices continue to climb). With an enormous fleet of local delivery vehicles, frequently stopping and starting, and moving short distances, USPS is primed for an efficiency mandate. By making a partial switch to electric vehicles they could also assist in energy modernization by fueling at night and helping to protect consistent energy production on the grid. Hybrid cars are also key. USPS could also think outside the box to save money on fuel. In warmer communities some postal workers could offer delivery via rickshaw or bikes with trailers.
I am not personally familiar with the economics of delivery of the mail and particular services, so I am going to shoot from the hip now. It seems to me that mail has been sorted into three categories lately: next day or 2 day, moderately fast, and where speed doesn’t matter as long as it gets there. Perhaps USPS could offer more services like Media Mail that offer slower service at a lower price, and entice some ground shipments away from UPS and FedEx. While doing so, it could utilize more efficient and cost effective transportation methods, such as freight rail.
Regardless of the solution, the federal government must own up to its constitutional responsibilities. The Postal Service is critical to America and as such should not be a purely for-profit business. Those parts that are profitable should be so, and the business should modernize. However, Congress should subsidize USPS for offices and services, that while necessary for those served, cannot be justified economically.