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NEW RATE HIKE IS NO CURE FOR WHAT AILS MAIL SERVICE

SHARE NEW RATE HIKE IS NO CURE FOR WHAT AILS MAIL SERVICE

Though the move Wednesday to hike the price of stamps seems bound to rile postal patrons already upset with their mail service, the U.S. Postal Service deserves some sympathy and understanding.

But only up to a point.After all, the price of a first class stamp has remained at 29 cents for four years - the longest period without an increase since the Post Office became a semi-independent agency in the early 1970s.

Though the Postal Service's Board of Governors could still reject the increase to 32 cents along with hikes in other rates, it probably won't do so because the higher rate will add only 60 to 75 cents a month to the mailing costs of the average household.

So moderate, in fact, is the latest increase that some experts believe the Postal Service will require another price rise within a year or two.

Meanwhile, there can be no disputing the fact that the Postal Service needs more money to balance its books. Moreover, the Postal Service deserves credit for holding its net loss during the past fiscal year to $948 million, well below the $2.4 billion loss some officials of the Postal Rate Commission projected earlier in the year and under the $1.3 billion that Postmaster General Marvin T. Runyon had set as his target.

But when the best possible face has been put on the postal hike, some highly unattractive facts remain.

One of them is that past rate hikes haven't solved the chronic problems of the Postal Service, which has run a deficit every year since 1989. The new rate hike, scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, can't be expected to be more than a Band-Aid, either.

Another grim fact is that even moderate rate hikes are bound to prompt more Americans to switch to faster and more reliable methods of communicating, including not just telephones but also such increasingly prevalent and popular operations as fax machines and personal computers.

The handwriting on the wall should be clear: Unless it can lower its rates and improve its efficiency, the future holds less and less patronage for an increasingly costly Postal Service.

In addition to its present pursuit of increased automation, at least one other possible remedy should be considered. Rather than continuing to only sell stamps and envelopes, maybe the Postal Service should get into the electronic end of the communications business, too.