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Dan K. Thomasson: Postal Service is going the way of Pony Express

By Dan K. Thomasson

Scripps Howard News Service

Published: Sunday, July 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this 1861-dated artist's rendering, a Pony Express rider greets Western Union linemen as they string wires of the first transcontinental telegraph.

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — The Pony Express may ultimately have been faster than some of the modern services from a U.S. Postal Service struggling against massive debt and the evil Internet. The result of the cutbacks in the futile effort to reverse the situation ultimately may be the abolition of what was once a precious national lifeline.

The less service, the more the rush to alternatives. Who, for instance, still pays bills by mail these days besides me? Untold numbers of my fellow citizens abandoned so called "snail mail" years ago.

That's too bad. With the disappearance of the letter has come a steady disintegration of literacy, replaced by a shorthand language that is almost robotic in its dissonance.

So, faced with billions of dollars in shortfalls, those running the postal system have little choice but to eliminate some far-flung franchises in small places, completely altering the social landscape. Meeting in the post office for a few minutes of neighborly gossip will become extinct, like the Pony Express run from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif.

Deteriorating postal service has begun to affect magazines and other periodicals, even newspapers that depend on timely delivery to their customers. In a recent news report, the publisher of a small, rural weekly newspaper in South Dakota said her advertising business had been hurt because it sometimes was delivered a week late, arriving with a more recent edition. The USPS had slammed the door on a regional processing plant. Major delays and other impaired service mean more customers will be lost.

The dilemma is easy to explain. First-class mail was to provide most of the revenue for the public institution, which also is subsidized by the federal government. But with a steady decline in the volume of mail, the service has run $1 billion in the red each month during the first half of the current fiscal year.

How can the USPS remain at all viable? There can be no turning back the clock to the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act, in which Congress in its wisdom decided to treat the agency "like a company independent of taxpayer funding," as Government Executive magazine's July issue notes.

Many thought it was a good idea — including the AFL-CIO, because postal workers would become collective bargainers.

Has the changeover worked? Obviously, it hasn't. But, given the explosion of technology, it's doubtful that anything could have been done to make the USPS more competitive. Even partial government subsidies haven't turned things around. Now the shortfalls are so large — the USPS has lost $25 billion in the past five fiscal years, Government Executive reports — that congressional budget cutters don't want much to do with the service.

Prospects seem pretty dim for the service operating except as a shell of what it once was. Electronic devices for message delivery are getting more sophisticated and more prevalent as the last of guys like me fade away.

The federal government must decide whether it wants to have a viable U.S. postal system or let it become just a part of romantic history. If it's the former, is the government willing to assume the total cost?

Could the system somehow gradually drag itself into the 21st century, offering its own electronic first-class message systems and delivering only periodicals and such? Anything is possible — but probably not likely, given the pervasiveness of email, social networks and who knows what still to come.

Unfortunately, it may be too late to salvage anything but the memories of the Pony Express and airmail.

E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan@aol.com.

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