By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; A04
The U.S. Postal Service plans to save up to $500 million in the next two years as it works to close or consolidate about 2,000 mostly small, rural and rarely visited retail locations, according to senior postal officials. An additional 500 sites are slated to close by June.
After years of using a confusing and laborious 21-month process panned by customers and Congress as too secretive and inconsistent, the mail agency is now relying on a computerized system that enables officials to review and determine a location's fate in no more than five months. If plans succeed, the Postal Service could halve its infrastructure by 2020, officials said.
Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said in a recent interview that the changes will help save millions of dollars.
"We have post offices out there that we have two customers, or three customers come in in an entire day," Donahoe said. "Remember the Maytag repair man? He used to have the loneliest job in the world. We probably have about 5,000 postmasters that have the loneliest job in the world."
Federal law prohibits the Postal Service from closing traditional post offices - where most mail processing occurs - for economic reasons, so Donahoe is targeting about 2,000 postal stations and branches - smaller, mostly leased sites often in skyscrapers or shopping plazas - that don't employ letter carriers.
"It is not our intention to take access away from the American public," Donahoe said, noting that the changes reflect shifting customer habits.
The 500 sites closing by June include about 400 that suspended operations because of weather or fire damage, environmental concerns or a lack of business. Most of the sites haven't been operational in about a year, but some haven't operated in almost three decades, said Dean Granholm, vice president of delivery and post office operations.
The other 100 branches and stations were first considered as part of a 2009 review that earned wide criticism. A list with thousands of sites considered for closure was prematurely shared with lawmakers, who distributed it to reporters. Caught by surprise, the Postal Service spent weeks defending the need to close post offices, causing confusion for customers and postal workers.
The incident compelled officials to establish the computerized process they began using in November, Granholm said. He is meeting regularly with colleagues to review potential sites.
If an unprofitable site employs fewer than five people, is open fewer than eight hours a day and is within 15 to 20 miles of a larger location, it is likely to close.
"We're not the only ones going through this trend," Granholm said. "All sorts of retailers are trying to find ways to do this."
Customer reaction will be an early test of the plan. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll from last March, 64 percent of Americans opposed closing post offices, including their local branch. But if few customers protest as the retail location closings begin, aides said, Donahoe is expected to aggressively push Congress to repeal the law prohibiting the closure of unprofitable traditional post offices.
With at least $7 billion in losses expected during the fiscal year that ends in September, "it's better for us to make the tough decisions now than to have somebody else make the decision later on," Donahoe said.