Postal Service may have to alter delivery

In an effort to cut costs, U.S. Postmaster General John E. Potter has asked Congress to allow the federal Postal Service to go to five-day delivery instead of the current six-day system. It would be unfortunate — and would cause headaches for businesses and individuals alike — to lose that extra day of service. But the Postal Service is facing a possible $6 billion deficit this year and should be granted the flexibility to adjust its delivery schedule as necessary.

The Postal Service last week announced a 2-cent increase in a first-class stamp, raising the cost from 42 cents to 44 cents, effective May 11. But that move will not come close to erasing its deficit.

The Postal Service has been aggressively cutting costs over the past six years but still has run a budget deficit. In 2008, the deficit was $2.8 billion. But the Postal Service, like private-sector businesses, has been hit hard by this grueling recession, and a $6 billion deficit remains a possibility this year.

No doubt businesses particularly will complain if the Postal Service were to eliminate delivery on Saturday or Tuesday, the days most often considered for dropping service. It would place a huge burden on businesses, and their concerns should be taken into account. Potter may indeed decide that moving to five-day delivery is not necessary. But Congress should allow the Postal Service to make that decision by not mandating the traditional six-day delivery when the agency’s appropriations bill comes up for consideration.

The agency is grappling with significant pressures, including intense competition from the private sector and changes in the way people communicate today. More Americans use the Internet to communicate as well as pay bills — tasks traditionally provided by the Postal Service.

The Postal Service has tried to keep afloat by jettisoning workers and adopting an array of other strategies. It has already cut costs by $1 billion a year since 2002 by downsizing its work force by 120,000, ceasing new construction, freezing many top salaries and slashing its headquarters staff by 15 percent.

But more cost-cutting is needed. Studies have suggested that the Postal Service could save as much as $3.5 billion by moving to five-day delivery. The day most often considered is Tuesday, a lower-volume day. Saturday also has been considered, although that would mean Americans would go without mail for two days in a row.

If the agency changes to five-day delivery, it won’t happen immediately. Businesses and individuals will be given time to adjust. The change will be significant for many businesses, but five-day delivery may be necessary for the Postal Service eventually to balance its budget. Even after the change, the Postal Service still may face a substantial deficit, which may require a similarly aggressive remedy. At the very least, Congress must grant the Postal Service the flexibility to adjust to an economic environment that is highly competitive and challenging.

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