It appears Congress will intervene to prevent a national rail strike by Dec. 9. Such a strike could cripple supply lines just before the Christmas holidays, and undo much of the hard-won progress in restoring reliable shipping at reasonable rates following pandemic disruptions still rippling through the economy.

Keeping freight rolling is now a national security interest. The federal government, over many decades, hasn’t shown similar concern for moving people around by rail, even though in urban areas it’s the fastest, most convenient, most energy-efficiency transportation mode.

That’s because, following World War II and the boom in car purchases, federal regulators allowed railroads, all privately owned, to reduce and then eliminate passenger routes, even in places where they made perfect sense.

The replacement — Amtrak — is desperately underfunded, and has the further disadvantage of having to negotiate, or beg, for access to freight lines. It took five years to get the Downeaster — the only regularly scheduled passenger train in Maine — rolling for that reason.

Maine still has hundreds of miles of under-used rail infrastructure that could carry passenger trains, but Maine DOT has shown no interest in funding anything except freight improvements.

We made a national policy decision to allow private railroads to dictate service, with the result that many urban areas experience massive congestion with no alternative in sight, despite plenty of rail rights-of-way. Short of major changes by Congress, the neglect will likely continue.

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Something similar may be happening, however, with our oldest public entity, the U.S. Postal Service, which I prefer to call by its traditional name, the post office. And there’s no justification at all for this latest service deficit.

Ever since the postal Board of Governors, with a majority of Trump appointees, hired logistics expert Henry DeJoy as postmaster general, the post office has stressed competing with FedEx and UPS for package delivery above all else.

Thus we have the familiar mail trucks whizzing around every day, including Sundays and holidays, delivering packages on time and usually cheaper than the competition. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the post office is doing a lousy job of delivering first class mail, on which it has a legal monopoly. While packages reach my doorstep in record time, my rural mailbox saw daily delivery on only nine of 12 assigned days over the last two-week period.

The culprit, in part, is the two-tier wage system installed in 2011 that makes it difficult for the post office to hire new entry-level workers in an increasingly competitive labor market.

Missed rural deliveries had never happened here before, even during the early pandemic in 2020 when delivery changes unwisely ordered by DeJoy led to delays of a month or more for first class envelopes. It also led to concern mail-in ballots for the November election might not be delivered.

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Under heavy Congressional pressure, DeJoy relented. Yet he’s still doing the same thing as the railroads did, through gradual erosion of delivery standards.

Railroads got permission to end service on “unprofitable” branch lines. Soon, with the resulting reduction in passengers, main lines were “unprofitable,” too, and the system finally collapsed, leading to the inadequate Amtrak replacement.

First class mail volumes have been shrinking for years, and DeJoy is encouraging them to shrink further through more service reductions. Packages may be more profitable for the post office, but DeJoy has it backwards.

There are plenty of alternatives for package delivery, but none for the mail.

After all, in a nation that doesn’t offer national health care, and has public school systems varying widely in quality, the post office is about the only truly universal public service we have.

Letting it wither away isn’t, or shouldn’t, be an option. Yet it’s not clear what can be done. There’s now a majority of Biden-appointed members of the Board of Governors, yet some seem to find DeJoy’s policies acceptable.

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Under the independent structure set up by Congress during the Nixon administration, neither the president nor Congress has any direct control. Mail service advocates are advocating DeJoy’s ouster through “board packing,” with new public-minded appointees. Though drastic, it may the answer.

The mail crisis of 2020 has faded, and it’s harder to rouse interest in problems that accrue over time. Unless we do something soon, however, one of the few things that bind us all together will go the way of the dodo, or the carrier pigeon.

Perhaps, after he’s finished with the rail strike threat, President Biden could focus on a problem that, one way or another, is entirely within the federal government’s control.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books, and is now researching the life and career of a U.S. Chief Justice. He welcomes comment at: [email protected]

 


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