Bending to strong public opposition, the nearly bankrupt U.S. Postal Service on Wednesday backed off a plan to close thousands of rural post offices after May 15 and proposed keeping them open, but with shorter operating hours.
The move to halt the shuttering of 3,700 low-revenue post offices followed months of dissent from rural states and their lawmakers, who said the cost-cutting would hurt their communities the most. In recent weeks, rising opposition had led Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe to visit some rural areas in a bid to ease fears about cuts that could slow delivery of prescription drugs, newspapers and other services.
In an election year, the angst over postal closings also extended to nearly half the senators, who in letters last week urged Donahoe to postpone closing any mail facility until Congress approves final postal overhaul legislation. The Senate last month passed a bill that would halt many of the closings; the House remains stalled over a separate bill allowing for aggressive cuts.
"I could live with this plan, and I think the majority of people could," said June Nygren, who runs the Jersey Lilly Saloon & Eatery in the tiny Montana town of Ingomar. Donahoe visited the rural town of about 80 people last month, which welcomed him with a spread of home-made baked goods and a packed school gymnasium as people pleaded for their post office to stay open.
At a news briefing, Donahoe said he hoped the latest plan will help allay much of rural America's concern about postal cutbacks. He prodded Congress to act quickly on legislation that will allow the agency to move ahead with its broader multibillion dollar cost-cutting effort and return to profitability by 2015.
The Postal Service is pushing Congress to pass cost-saving postal legislation that includes an end to Saturday mail delivery. The agency is also expected to announce new changes next week involving its proposal to close up to 252 mail processing centers, including the one on William Street in Buffalo.
"We've listened to our customers in rural America, and we've heard them loud and clear -- they want to keep their post office open," Donahoe said.
While no rural post office would be closed, more than 13,000 rural mail facilities could see reduced operations of between two hours and six hours a day, but only after a review process that is expected to take several months. An additional 4,000 rural post offices would keep their full-time hours.