In Dubious Battle: The Postal Service, Congress, and Verizon go at it

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Congress and the Postal Service are locked in a brutal face-off, with the future of the post office at stake.  An angry Congressman writes the Postmaster General accusing postal officials of uttering falsehoods.  The Postal Service defends itself by blaming an Internet provider. 

No, we’re not talking about Darrell Issa, postal D-day, the historic default on the $5.6 billion payment to the retiree health care fund, or the liquidity crisis destined to occur if Congress doesn’t rescue the Postal Service with new legislation.

Those are just abstract bookkeeping issues.  Whatever the headlines say, a default is not going to affect daily operations of the Postal Service in any significant way.  (Not that the headlines will help USPS revenues very much — the stakeholders hate uncertainty.)

The more serious issue is something very concrete — a parking lot

Not far from the halls of Congress and postal headquarters lies the wealthy community of Bethesda, Maryland.  It’s there that three behemoths — the USPS, Congress, and Verizon — are locked in a heated dispute over a half dozen or so parking spaces. 

It’s no joke.  Parking is one of the scarcest resources on the planet, especially in downtown Bethesda.

The problems all started a few weeks ago, when the Postal Service closed two Bethesda post offices — the New Deal post office on Wisconsin Avenue at Montgomery Lane and the Arlington Road office — and relocated them into a new retail facility, about ten blocks down Wisconsin Avenue from the historic post office.  There’s a parking lot adjacent to the new facility, but when customers visiting the post office started parking there, they found themselves being ticketed and possibly getting towed.  

That’s when Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen stepped in.  He wrote the Postmaster General in May about the problem and got a reply from the USPS Government Relations Manager explaining that the agency was doing everything it could to minimize the parking difficulties.  With his constituents continuing to complain, the Congressman wasn’t satisfied, so more letters were exchanged.  What postal officials told the Congressman served only to increase his ire.  (The Bethesda Patch has the story and all the letters.)

The Postal Service explained that when they scoped out the new location before signing the lease, they saw a sign saying that the parking was available to the tenant.  The lot didn’t belong to the new post office building, however.  It belonged to the building on the other side, which has two tenants — Mattress Warehouse and Verizon. 


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(New post office to the left of lot, Mattress Warehouse to the right, Verizon to the right of that)

The Postal Service contacted its soon-to-be new neighbors about sharing the parking, but Verizon was, as the Postal Service put it, “non-responsive.”   The Postal Service was in a hurry because they had to get out of the Wisconsin Avenue and the Arlington Road locations, so it signed the lease even though the parking issue was still unresolved. 

Now that the post office is in its new location, Verizon continues to object to sharing the parking, and Verizon’s landlord can’t do anything about it because there’s a provision in the lease that requires the tenant’s approval to sublet the parking.  Verizon isn’t messing around.  It has even stationed attendants at the parking lot to tell postal patrons the lot is not for them. 

Congressman Van Hollen wasn’t buying any of the Postal Service’s explanations.  In yet another letter last week to the Postmaster General, the Congressman says it was “astounding” that the Postal Service could lease the new space without inquiring any further into the availability of parking than noticing a sign.  He said that the claim that the Postal Service was under time pressure to move into a new location was “patently untrue” because the landlord of the Montgomery Lane post office was willing to extend the lease “for five more years at below-market rent.” 

The Congressman was particularly irked that the Postal Service had assured the community — well before the new location was chosen — that there would be plenty of parking at the new facility.  “The USPS’ misrepresentations of its procedures and its stated priorities has become the source of the community’s outrage at the misguided selection of this location.”

Congressman Van Hollen ends his letter by again calling upon the Postmaster General to relocate the post office to a site that meets the community’s needs “as expeditiously as possible.”

It’s really unfortunate that things have come to this.  The old New Deal post office was a priceless historic building, located in the hearth of Bethesda, and the Postal Service could have just stayed put.  The building is adorned with a New Deal mural depicting women doing farm work and running a farmers’ market.  Eleanor Roosevelt took a special interest in it, even taking time to visit the artist as he was making preliminary sketches.  The sketch was “charming,” wrote Eleanor in her diary, and then she added, “I think these post offices are making the country more and more conscious of decorative, artistic values.” 

Outside, next to the post office, is a landmark Madonna of the Trail statue, erected by the National Old Trails Association and the Daughters of the American Revolution to honor pioneer women.  Future president Harry S. Truman, then president of the Trails Association, presided over the dedication of the monument on April 19, 1929. 

Despite the historic significance of the post office, the Postal Service, in its limitless wisdom,  decided that it wanted to grab a quick $4 million by selling the post office and relocating services elsewhere.  While they were at it, they decided to sell the Arlington Road post office as well and to merge the two post offices together at a new location.  The Arlington Road post office, by the way, will be demolished to make room for an apartment building.  The fate of the historic Wisconsin Avenue post office remains unclear.

No one seems to be challenging the Postal Service on this newly emerging pattern of closing two post offices and consolidating them into a single new location.  The Postal Service says it doesn’t need to do a discontinuance study when it simply relocates services from one building to another in the same community. 

But how can the Postal Service relocate two post offices into one space and not do a discontinuance study on at least one of them?  Using that logic, the Postal Service could consolidate every post office in a metropolitan area — the main post office and all the stations and branches — into one new location, and call all of the closures relocations.  That can’t be consistent with Title 39.

Anyway, one of the most interesting aspects of this story is the Verizon connection.  According to the Postal Service, the whole issue could be resolved if Verizon would simply give the landlord permission to sublet some of the parking spaces to the post office.   The Postal Service told Congressman Van Hollen that it is “continuing to seek a resolution to address the parking concerns with Verizon,” and even though it has just signed a lease on the new space, it’s even willing to look for “alternate quarters” if things don’t work out.

It was just a few months ago, in January, that the Postal Service and Verizon were singing each other’s praises after signing a deal making Verizon the prime contractor for the Postal Service's telecommunications platform.  The contract means $186 million for Verizon over the next six years.  With over $70 million of USPS business in 2011, Verizon was already the 18th largest supplier for the Postal Service.  The new contract promises to boost its ranking for 2012.

When the new deal was announced, Susan Zeleniak, group president for Verizon Federal, said the company will be “delivering the communications backbone that helps keep the mail on time in a modern world.”

You’d think that with the Postal Service throwing that much business its way, Verizon might be willing to cut the Postal Service some slack over a half dozen parking spaces. 

Perhaps if the Postal Service gave Verizon a call about the parking issue in Bethesda and reminded their telecommunications partner of the $186 million contract, they’d get the desired response: "Yes, I can hear you now." 

(UPDATE: A news report on Tuesday says the Postal Service has to pay the landlord of the old Wisconsin Avenue post office $186,000 even though it's already vacated the space.  It seems that postal officials thought there was a three-month early-termination clause in the lease, but it was actually nine months, and for some reason, the rent quadrupled during this period.  Congressman Van Hollen says the new revelations raise questions about management abilities.  "I certainly hope there are not more disturbing details," said Van Hollen, "because what we know is disturbing enough.”


(Photo credits: New post office on Wisconsin Avenue, New Deal post office, Arlington Road post office, all by Evan Kalish, who did a terrific post about all three post offices back in June, just when the move was happening, for his website Going Postal.  Mural of women farming.  The video is an excerpt from this walking tour of Bethesda, with Bill Offutt, author of "Bethesda: A Social History.")

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