Op - Ed: Bypass mail benefits more of Alaska than just the Bush

As Washington lawmakers begin the process of helping the United States Postal Service regain a firm financial footing, some are suggesting changes to Alaska's bypass mail system. A House of Representatives subcommittee recently adopted an amendment that singles out Alaska and would require the state to pay for bypass mail service -- an expense that ran to $70 million dollars last year. Similar legislation has since been introduced in the Senate.

I believe this is a flawed approach, not only because it belies the United States Postal Service's core mission of "universal service at universal rates" but also because it could undercut our state's economy.

There is no doubt that the Postal Service -- which receives no federal funding -- is in an untenable position, billions in the red, and must make changes to evolve with the times. I'm taking an active role in the discussions in Washington to examine proposed changes intended to streamline the Postal Service in a comprehensive way.

But this proposed legislation would single out Alaska among the 50 states for the specific reason that we're a high-cost delivery area -- which goes against current law and breaks with the wise men who created this country.

The Founding Fathers required Congress in the U.S. Constitution to "establish Post Offices and post Roads" because even in the nation's infancy they realized the imperative of the mail for our culture and economy. The importance of the mail in our daily commerce and communication has certainly changed since the Constitution was ratified in 1787 but it has not gone away.

And the concept of universal service is not a debating point; it's federal law. Mail is "a basic and fundamental service" and Congress requires the Postal Service to "provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render Postal Services to all communities" and must establish rates "on a fair and equitable basis." This means the Postal Service must provide universal service at universal rates -- and that has been the reasoning behind the USPS funding Alaska's bypass mail.

Bypass mail allows supplies ordered by stores, businesses and individuals in rural Alaska to be shipped economically and efficiently from Anchorage and Fairbanks to communities like Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Dillingham and Alaska's rural villages without road access. These shipments literally "bypass" the U.S. Postal Service, as the shipper sends the order directly to the cargo air carrier, which flies it to its destination. This process saves the Postal Service from having to pay for facilities, labor and equipment to sort these packages and send them on their way. It's the efficient answer to Alaska's challenging mail routes.

Too often, bypass mail is painted as a rural Alaska issue merely because of the end destination. But the entire state economy benefits from it. The millions of dollars in groceries, medications and construction supplies are often purchased from businesses located in Anchorage and Fairbanks -- businesses that employ urban Alaskans and contribute to the urban Alaska economy. They are shipped on planes that fly from Anchorage and Fairbanks by air cargo companies that employ pilots and ground crews who live in and contribute to those urban communities. Bypass mail hits home for all of us.

I am going to fight for bypass mail, starting with instructing my colleagues about the unique role it plays as an economic engine for our state. I asked the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee -- on which I serve -- to hold a hearing on the importance of the Postal Service to our Native communities. I am also working with leaders of the Senate committee that oversees the Postal Service to educate them about bypass mail's role in Alaska.

I stand ready to join my congressional colleagues in finding ways to make the Postal Service's fiscal situation sustainable, but those sacrifices must be shared and consistent with the USPS mission. Universal service means universal service -- whether you're in Los Angeles, Miami, Bethel or Allakaket.