Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Federal program that ships goods to remote areas in Alaska cost USPS more than $77 million in 2013

The U.S. Postal Service's financial woes have been well-documented, with the agency reporting a $5 billion loss in 2013, as it continues its push to end Saturday mail delivery, with the exception of packages. But as USPS continues to come up with ways to save money, often at the expense of rural residents, perhaps one of the biggest hits USPS takes is in its participation in a federal program exclusive to Alaska, called the Alaska Bypass, that delivers shipments, even groceries, to Alaskans living in areas so remote they have little to no access to stores with basic necessities.

Bethel: a town in the bush. (Post photo by Whitney Shefte)
"The Postal Service is responsible for shipping more than 100 million pounds a year of apples, frozen meat, dog food, diapers and countless other consumer items to off-road villages in the sparsely populated outposts known as the bush," places not connected to the rest of the nation by road, Lisa Rein reports for The Washington Post. "Over three decades acting as freight forwarder, the agency has lost $2.5 billion." Last year the program cost USPS $77.5 million, "with ordinary stamp-buying customers covering the tab, while a long line of commercial interests here benefited, from the airline and shipping industries to rural grocery chains."

"Retailers pay the Postal Service about half of what it would cost them to ship the goods commercially; the subsidy allows them to charge a hefty markup on a can of Coke, for example, in some cases 30 percent or more," Rein writes. "The agency, by law, must pay private air carriers well above market rates in the only corner of the country where airline prices are still regulated."

Costs are high for consumers, but low for businesses. Residents often pay $15.15 for a 12-pack of Coke, but the pallet it came on cost USPS about $3,200, while "Alaska Commercial paid only about $485 in postage," Rein writes. "Not only is this well below commercial rates, it’s even less expensive — about 20 percent less per pound, postal regulators say — than customers anywhere else in the country pay to send a package via parcel post."

That's where the program differs from others, Rein writes. "As part of its obligation to provide universal delivery, the Postal Service ferries, flies, hovercrafts and even dispatches mules to a handful of other remote communities where letter carriers can’t drive. But only in Alaska do packages weighing at least 1,000 pounds — 930 pounds above the heaviest parcel post box allowed in the Lower 48 states — count as a universal service. Only in Alaska do flat-screen televisions, paper towels, charcoal grills, citronella candles and apples count as mail."

And there's little anyone can do about the program, Rein writes. "Despite critics’ efforts, the Alaska Bypass has been untouchable. Few in Congress understand it. Tinkering with it would rankle politicians from other rural states who fear this could be the first step toward scaling back mail delivery to other far-flung places. And even with one of the Senate’s top power brokers gone, in Washington the legislative muscle of this most remote state remains ironclad." (Read more)

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