Postmaster General threatens to cut Alaska’s Bypass Mail
In a Senate hearing on Friday, August 21, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy mentioned that the Alaska Bypass Mail program was “on the table” for Postal Service budget cuts. The comment concerned many in Alaska who rely on Bypass Mail to get basic supplies at reasonable cost to rural Alaska and communities off the road system.
DeJoy said that no plan had been finalized, but that the Postal Service was looking at cutting funding to a range of costly mandates in order to save money. “We have initiatives we are looking at, like the Alaska Bypass plan, that is on the table. There is an unfunded mandate that costs us $500 million a year.”
Bypass Mail was established in 1972 and subsidizes freight shipments of food and basic supplies to rural Alaskan communities off the road system. The shipments “bypass” postal facilities and go straight to local stores, and the Postal Service pays local airlines’ high rates so that rural communities can get supplies at reasonable prices.
The Alaska congressional delegation met with DeJoy on Tuesday, August 25 in what a press release from Senator Lisa Murkowski described as “a productive and educational meeting.” The delegation reportedly informed DeJoy of the importance of Bypass Mail to daily life in rural Alaska and the Postmaster General was receptive.
“We are pleased to see that he has come to recognize the importance, and is committed to maintaining, the Bypass Mail program in Alaska,” Senator Murkowski’s press release said.
Senator Dan Sullivan explained in a conference call that he saw the program as a fundamental part of the Postal Service’s constitutional obligation to serve all Americans. He also said last Tuesday’s meeting was effective. “We were respectful but forceful with him,” Sullivan said. “The Bypass Mail system is not going to be touched.”
A representative from the Postal Service said the organization is not granting media requests for interviews about Bypass Mail at this time, but forwarded a statement released by the Postmaster General following his meeting with the Alaska delegation.
“I assured them that it was not my intention to single out Bypass Mail while testifying at the August 21st Senate hearing, or to suggest that we were eliminating the program,” he said in the statement. “Rather, I was referring to a much broader effort to inventory all postal programs, as a part of our larger work to understand the Postal Service’s finances given the legal requirement that the Postal Service be financially self-sufficient.”
Mike McNally, manager of Nome’s Alaska Commercial store, said his store relies on Bypass Mail to get almost all of its products. He said the program has come under fire in the past, and he’s been saying the same thing for 20 years: “if the program is cut, then the cost of goods will go up.”
Paul Denton, acting manager of Hanson’s, echoed McNally’s sentiment. His store has a contract with Northern Air Cargo to fly in perishable goods, but everything else – 10 to 12 palettes of freight every Tuesday and Thursday, plus another 10 or so on Fridays – comes in via Bypass Mail. If Bypass Mail were cut, he said he’d have to start contracting with private airlines for all of his product. “That would be a pretty big concern for us,” he said.
If the consequence for the hub Nome would be dire, they’d be plain devastating for the region’s villages. Jeremiah Apatiki, manager of the Native Store in Gambell, said he’s constantly ordering goods, from milk to diapers, through Bypass Mail. If the program were cut, “we’d be in a crisis,” he said. “We’d have no more essentials.”
Both Denton and Apatiki were quick to point out that the system as it stands is far from perfect. Denton said his shipments almost always come in later than expected, usually by just a day or two but sometimes by a week or more, because the airlines that contract with the Postal Service can decide to decline a shipment days after it’s requested, forcing the Postal Service to find a different carrier.
Apatiki said that despite his repeated complaints, almost all the frozen goods coming into Gambell this summer have arrived thawed and unusable. Apatiki wasn’t sure what the root cause of the issue was. “It’s a big loss for us and the community,” he said. “It needs to stop, we need our food frozen.”
Despite the program’s inefficiencies, though, all the store managers agreed that it was vital to getting basic, affordable goods into rural Alaska communities. So far, the Postmaster General DeJoy has made no definitive plans on what programs to cut.