Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has been saying for three years that his agency is in danger of running out of money because of declining mail volume. And since bills and greeting cards continue to be delivered six days a week, it’s little surprise that Congress has largely ignored his call for sweeping postal reform legislation.
Now time may be running out. There are expensive projects that the USPS isn’t tending to because it doesn’t have the funds. The agency’s inspector general predicted (PDF) earlier this month that unless the USPS replaces its aging fleet of trucks, it might not be able to deliver mail throughout the country after 2017. The report didn’t attract much attention; the USPS is an agency awash in bad news. But this is something that lawmakers should pay closer attention to.
The USPS has nearly 190,000 vehicles, one of the largest fleets in the U.S. Of that number, according to the report, 142,000 are custom-built mail delivery trucks expected to last 24 years. Many are approaching or have passed their expiration date. The inspector general says the current fleet consists of delivery vans that are “now between 20 and 27 years old.”
Naturally, there are risks involved when postal workers make their rounds in 27-year-old trucks. The report notes that many of those vehicles lack the kind of safely features people now take for granted, such as front air bags, backup cameras, blind-spot warning systems, daytime running lights, seat belt reminders, and anti-lock brakes.
The inspector general estimates that the USPS would have to spend $452 million to replace the entire fleet, and there’s no money for new vehicles at an agency that reported a $5 billion loss last year. The USPS has debated two plans to replace smaller numbers of vehicles and found those unaffordable as well. The sole exception came earlier this year, when the USPS approved a plan to purchase 3,509 vehicles to honor its contract with rural letter carriers.
You would think that the possibly of curtailed mail service four years hence might inspire action on Capitol Hill. It hasn’t. Republicans and Democrats are reluctant to support any of the money-saving measures that Donahoe has proposed, such as ending Saturday letter delivery. They might lose a few votes. Then again, their constituents may be angrier in 2017 if they stop getting mail because elected officials shrugged off this troubling report.