Clearing up a few misconceptions about S&DCs and EVs

Steve HutkinsBlog, Featured

The Washington Post is reporting that the Postal Service plans to spend almost $10 billion for 66,000 electric vehicles and related infrastructure, a big win for the Biden administration and environmentalists.

This is, of course, very good news, and one hesitates to throw cold water on the announcement. But unfortunately, in reporting on its scoop, the Post — as it did in a related article back in November — seems to go along with the Postmaster General’s highly problematic linkage of buying more EVs to his plan to relocate letter carriers from post offices to large Sorting & Delivery Centers.

In today’s article there’s one paragraph in particular that could use some clarification:

“The Postal Service is restructuring its vast mail processing and delivery network to minimize unnecessary transportation and fit facilities specifically for EVs. It will concentrate letter carriers at centralized locations rather than using small-town post offices to take advantage of existing infrastructure and cost savings associated with electric vehicles.”

There are several problems here:

First, the plan to restructure the delivery network actually adds hundreds of millions of miles to carrier routes. DeJoy has repeatedly said his plan will simplify the network and reduce transportation costs, but he’s provided no evidence for this, and there’s plenty of data showing the opposite.

An internal USPS presentation from July 29, 2022, shows that the plan adds about 12 or 13 miles to each route, one-way, which, for the 100,000 routes that will be relocated from post offices, adds up to something like 700 million more miles annually. The Postal Service has yet to explain how the plan will “minimize unnecessary transportation” or how, even with all these additional miles, it will reduce costs overall.

Second, most of the routes that will be centralized will come from midsize to large post offices in metro areas, not small towns. Nearly all the S&DCs will be located in metro areas, and the plan puts a limit of 30 minutes for travel time between S&DC and the route — guaranteeing that the vast majority of the routes will be relocated from metro-area post offices, not small towns, most of which will be beyond the 30-minute reach.

According to the 7/29 presentation, in the Atlanta metro area, seven or eight S&DCs — three in existing facilities, four or five in new ones — will absorb over 2,300 routes from about 80 post offices. Very few of these offices are in what could be called small towns. They’re nearly all urban and suburban.  Overall, only a small percentage of the 100,000 routes encompassed by the plan will come from small-town post offices, which typically house five to ten carriers, while the larger offices house 20 to 50. In any case, once the carriers are gone, a post office, big or small, becomes much more vulnerable to having its retail hours cut, getting relocated to a smaller space, or being closed completely.

Third, while hundreds of existing postal facilities will be modified to become S&DCs, the centerpieces of DeJoy’s future network will be the 60 or 70 new multi-functional mega-plants he plans to create. The Postal Service has already leased massive logistics warehouses in Charlotte and Atlanta, and a third, in Indianapolis, is included in the 7/29 presentation.

In September, the PMG took the Post on a tour of several facilities in Atlanta to illustrate his “template” for the future delivery network. Among them was the million-square-foot facility in the Palmetto Logistics Park, southwest of the city, that the Postal Service began leasing early this year. These are the kinds of facilities where DeJoy plans to install charging stations for his fleet of EVs. Why put them at post offices when the trucks will be spending the night at the S&DCs?

And fourth, DeJoy is not restructuring the delivery network in order to fit facilities for EVs. Any post office can be fitted for EVs. You don’t need to centralize the network in order to make that happen.

The plan to consolidate routes was developed long before any thought was given to buying tens of thousands of electric vehicles. The Delivering for America plan released in March 2021 was already talking about “improving our delivery unit footprint,” “optimizing delivery units,” and “streamlining carrier functions.” At that point, the Postal Service was committed to electrifying only 10 percent of the new fleet.

It wasn’t until June 2022 that the Postal Service began saying it could buy more EVs thanks to “delivery network and related route refinements,” even though by then it had been developing the S&DC plan for over a year. A July 2022 article in the USPS Eagle Magazine rolling out the new delivery network doesn’t even mention electric vehicles.

The commitment to buy more EVs wasn’t made possible by the S&DC plan. It was a response to lawsuits, the EPA’s criticism of the Postal Service’s environmental impact study on the next-gen fleet, and pressure — and the promise of funding — from Congress and the Biden administration.

In today’s press release about the big EV buy, the Postal Service goes a step further. It’s not simply that the network reconfiguration makes it possible to buy more EVs. Now we’re told that purchasing more EVs will only be possible if the delivery network is modernized: “What is less widely understood is that our network modernization initiative is necessary to enable this vehicle electrification and will also provide meaningful cost and carbon reductions in other ways.” In other words, DeJoy can’t buy all these EVs unless he can go forward with his S&DC plan.

DeJoy is thus using the very popular plan to buy electric vehicles to justify his very unpopular delivery centralization plan.  As an Earthjustice attorney told the Washington Post, it’s “a shrewd approach.”  But it’s based on the false premise that EVs need S&DCs. Rather than promoting this claim, the media should be examining it more critically.

— Steve Hutkins

More about the plan here: