U.S. Postal Service controversy threatens Alaska’s Bypass Mail program

The program, unique within the United States, is a lifeline for remote communities in the Arctic and elsewhere in Alaska.

By Yereth Rosen - August 31, 2020
Bypass mail is transported to Fort Yukon, Alaska in a small aircraft. (Joseph / CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr)

Amid furor about the Trump administration shakeup of the U.S. Postal Service, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy sparked an Alaska-specific controversy when he mentioned the state’s unique Bypass Mail program as something that was “on the table” for reevaluation.

“Take the Alaska Bypass plan discussion. That’s an item on the table. That’s an unfunded mandate. It costs us, like, $500 million a year,” he said at an Aug. 21 Senate hearing on sweeping Postal Service changes that critics say are damaging.

The brief mention drew a swift reaction from Alaska officials defending the system that allows groceries and other consumer goods to be shipped to remote communities by air carriers contracted to carry mail.

“Eliminating bypass mail would create a tremendous tsunami throughout the state. This would essentially lead to the collapse of rural Alaska if bypass mail went away. It’s that significant,” state House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, who is from Dillingham, said on Facebook.

By Wednesday, after hearing directly from the three-member Alaska Congressional delegation — Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young — DeJoy struck a more positive tone about Bypass Mail and its future.

The delegation members, DeJoy said in a statement, “spoke forcefully on the importance of Bypass Mail to rural Alaska, and 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,” DeJoy said in a 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. I welcomed the chance to explain my comments, and I look forward to continued work with the Alaska congressional delegation on issues of importance to the Postal Service and Alaskans.”

The Postal Service’s mission is to provide universal service at universal prices to all parts of the nation — rural areas with few other reasonable delivery alternatives, and where mail delivery requires significant subsidies. For Alaska, with its vast geography and lack of road access to rural communities, the subsidized service is especially important.

Alaska’s geographic and other challenges are why the Bypass Mail program was created in the 1970s. The system allows shipments of goods, mostly groceries, to rural Alaska villages on air carriers contracted by the postal service to deliver mail. The goods shipped do not go through any post offices, hence the “bypass” part of the program’s name.

Although DeJoy said the program costs $500 million a year, other government estimates have been about a fifth of that.

Defenders of Bypass Mail, including the state’s Congressional delegation, argue that it actually saves postal service money by allowing the Postal Service to skip the expenses of processing and sorting shipped goods. It also reduces congestion in the post offices, the system’s defenders argue.

But Bypass Mail has had its critics over the years.

A 2011 report from the Postal Service’s inspector general said the program was unsustainable without major changes.

“The Postal Service cannot afford to subsidize a service that has expanded beyond its original purpose and does not appear essential to the Postal Service’s mission to bind the nation together through the provision of reliable, affordable, universal mail service,” that report said.

The inspector general’s report suggested that the state of Alaska use its wealth “to contribute toward the development of road and air infrastructure to provide a suitable alternative to the current system.” It specifically mentioned a possible road from Fairbanks to Nome, a 500-mile connection that has never advanced beyond the conceptual phase.

The road suggestion drew a feisty response from Rep. Young at a 2014 House hearing on Bypass Mail.

“That is the dumbest statement I have heard in my whole life. I doubt if he has ever been to Alaska. If he has, he knows why we can’t build roads,” Young said at the hearing, which was chaired by then-Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican who was a fierce critic of the Bypass Mail program.

Efforts to reduce Bypass Mail costs are not new.

From 1997 to 2000, the Postal Service conducted a demonstration project using Hovercraft water vessels to deliver mail from the hub community of Bethel to eight villages in the mostly Yup’ik Yukon-Kuskokwim river delta region.

The Postal Service had planned an experiment that would have used tundra-travel vehicles in the winter and specialized watercraft in the summer to deliver Bypass Mail goods on Alaska’s North Slope. However, that pilot program, to have started last year, was called off.

Aside from its overall cost, other features of Bypass Mail have drawn scrutiny.

Mail delivery can be an important income source for Alaska air carriers, making it a subject of scrutiny. Multiple factors go into the calculation of the base rate for mail service, including Bypass Mail service, but profit margins for carriers can vary, according to 2014 testimony from a U.S. Department of Transportation official.

There are sometimes questions about carriers’ qualifications to provide Bypass Mail service. Last March, for example, Anchorage-based Grant Aviation agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle civil charges over falsified claims made from 2015 to 2017, including claims related to its qualifications to be a Bypass Mail carrier.

The Bypass Mail system has even been linked indirectly to the concerns about diet and health because of the program’s role in the delivery of groceries to remote villages. Sugary drinks account for a lot of the volume carried through Bypass Mail, and health experts have long worried about the high consumption of those drinks in Alaska villages.

Experts say the consumption of sugary drinks is linked to a much bigger problem that plagues much of the Arctic — lack of dependable access to clean water for drinking and sanitation, a wide-ranging issue being addressed by the Arctic Council and other organizations. But ensuring that there is a different mix of beverages delivered to rural Alaska, with more healthful choices substituting for the sugary drinks, is among several recommendations made in a study published in 2016 in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health.

Beyond Bypass Mail, mail delivery in Alaska has other features that distinguish it from delivery in the rest of the United States.

There is a history of mail delivery by dog sled, which is now part of Postal Service lore. The Iditarod Trail was one of the routes used by dog-mushing mail carriers; Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race competitors carry ceremonial cachets in their sleds to pay homage to that tradition.

Long before the Bypass Mail system came about, the Postal Service’s history was intertwined with the history of Alaska aviation. The first airmail delivery in Alaska was in 1924, though air deliveries did not become common until later.