Mail drop

Post office targets 350 street collection boxes in area for removal

August 26, 2008|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

It's about to get harder to mail a letter.

Many of the familiar blue mailboxes in Central Maryland will be casualties of a U.S. Postal Service effort to become more efficient. More than 800 of the boxes have been removed in the past decade from Cumberland to the Eastern Shore, and now 350 more will be uprooted.

As the post office struggles financially, it won't pass up savings in its gasoline expenses that come with emptying fewer mailboxes. But the real force behind the need to decommission some boxes is the declining volume of mail dropped into them, as more people stay in touch and pay bills electronically.

"Instead of using collection boxes, most people today send their mail from home or workplace and pay bills online and correspond via Internet," said USPS spokeswoman Freda Sauter.

But some still prefer to use the big steel mailboxes.

Robert C. Ohlverter has lived in Federal Hill for more than 60 years and has grown accustomed to walking down to Fort Avenue to drop letters and bills into a mailbox now tagged for removal.

Ohlverter said older residents like him who are less tech-savvy still rely on the blue boxes.

"They're hurting a lot of senior citizens right now," he said. "If you take a look, there's not that many boxes around. If they keep this up, you might as well go down to the post office."

Beyond mailboxes and convenience, what's at stake are age-old methods people have used to stay connected, said Karen Wisdom, an instructional science and technology lecturer at California State University-Monterey Bay.

"While digitally mediated communication is beneficial for everyday work and personal needs, traditional communication must be preserved," Wisdom said.

"Who doesn't appreciate a handwritten letter from friends or family?"

Over the past decade, the volume of first-class mail, which includes bills and letters, has steadily declined, and the postal service expects that trend to continue, Sauter said.

Since 2003, the amount of bills paid by mail has dropped 12 percent, mostly because of the rise of online banking, Sauter said, citing a postal service study. Through the first three quarters of this fiscal year, mail volume has dropped to 48.5 billion pieces, down about 5.5 percent from the same period last year, according to the postal service.

As volume declines, losses mount, with the postal service seeing a net loss of $1.13 billion so far this year.

Removing boxes is one way the postal service has reacted to the decline. After this round, about 2,300 boxes will be left in Baltimore district, she said.

To determine which boxes should be removed, the USPS conducted a survey at the beginning of the month. Any box that receives fewer than 22 pieces of mail a day will be taken away, Sauter said. The boxes were posted with a seven-day notice that also includes the closest alternative.

Sauter said the postal service will maintain at least one blue box within every square mile of residential area. But Ohlverter said that's too far for older residents: "I've got replacement knees, and there's a lot of people who can't do that."

The postal service says that even though high gas prices significantly affect the mail industry - each penny increase costs the postal service $8 million annually - fuel isn't the primary reason why the boxes are going away.

"The postal service is always looking for ways to be more efficient," Sauter said. "However, this is not the reason the collection boxes are being removed. They are not being utilized."

These days, customers can simply get online to buy stamps, print labels and even put a stop on their mail when they are away. In addition, residents can arrange for outgoing mail to be picked up from their doorstep.

But some seniors say they are reluctant to embrace such options. They have concerns about identity theft, a crime for which they are often targeted, and don't feel comfortable leaving their mail lying outside. Some aren't adept at making the shift to using the Internet for shopping and services.

"Unfortunately, there aren't many resources available to this particular segment of the population at this point in time," said Wisdom, whose courses address the "digital divide" and what can be done to close it.

There also are financial matters unique to seniors that play a role, she said. "A fixed income is not conducive to the costs of cell phones and Internet providers, let alone the equipment needed. It's discouraging."

However, progress is being made, experts say, adding that more and more, seniors are growing to accept technology because of easier-to-use devices and because the march toward a more digital society won't slow any time soon.

"As we age, we might grumble about a ... lack of faith in the latest and greatest digital advances, but the use of technology is such that even seniors today understand and appreciate its foothold into all aspects of our daily lives," she said.

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