Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Last Frontier: Alaska by Post Office

Welcome to Part I of my explorations to Alaska! I had the privilege of spending a week in the Last Frontier and have been looking forward to sharing my research and experiences with you.

I'm reminded of The Simpsons when I think of Alaska. (Warning: cultural reference ahead.)


Who shot J.R.? Err, Mr. Burns?

Were Mr. Burns to enlist Superman to, say, pick up Rhode Island and place it above the middle of the United States in his effort to block out the sun, he would merely stifle a couple of counties in central Kansas. Pick up and place Alaska across the continental United States, and you'd pretty much lose the Central Time Zone. Just pondering the vastness of our 49th state can be exhausting.

Welcome to your more temperate Last Frontier. Let's plop it down on the country and see where things stand. Imagine your cross-country road trip now that Alaska's northeast corner buries Chicago and Green Bay. Alaska's capital, Juneau, becomes the new Atlanta, though a bit less (100 times less) populated. Mountainous islands even protrude out to Jacksonville. Iowa and Kansas have become a lot less flat; Minneapolis is now covered with (more?) permafrost; and the South Dakota Badlands abut previously Arctic Inuit villages. Alaska's southwest mainland would stretch across Lubbock, Texas, and the western Aleutian Islands now offer a great view of the desert near Tucson, not to mention the Pacific Coast Highway. Despite all this, only one-fifth of the mainland U.S. would actually be shielded by an Alaska sunblocker.


SPF 663,300 square miles?

We've established that Alaska is big. But most of its area is not easily accessible. To finish up our Simpsons-inspired narrative, out of that entire area of the Alaska-sunblocked United States, only parts covering Missouri are spanned by 'normal' passenger vehicle-friendly roads—and even most of those networks get rather sparse. So starting out in "Missouri," home of Anchorage International Airport, there's no way to drive to what had been Chicago, Atlanta, or even next-door Kansas.

This neat little page allows you to visualize the enormity of Alaska compared with the U.S. (as per the map above), or with respect to any individual state: How Big is Alaska?

Planning an Alaska Postal Adventure

If you're going to explore the communities of Alaska, you'd better pair your destination with the right mode of transportation. Each part of the state is best suited to a different means of transport. One is by land; two is by sea; and three is by air—take that, Paul Revere. If you're going to just explore the 'civilized,' road-connected corner of Alaska then, by all means, fly to Anchorage and rent a car. You can drive up to Fairbanks, you can drive south to Seward, and even out to the Yukon border if you're feeling particularly adventurous. But you can have this basic experience anywhere, which is why I always promised myself that when I visited Alaska I'd get at least a smidgen of the bush plane/sea experience. We'll have some unique experiences with car, plane, and boat in this story. Alaska was my 50th state, and this trip was definitely worth the wait.

I've been an operations engineer and I found the logistics of visiting the remote post offices of Alaska to be overwhelming. One original possible plan for this trip involved flying to Anchorage, then taking a smaller plane an extra hour and a half out to Nome (population 4,000—the biggest community for hundreds of miles), then on a still-smaller plane from Nome to further remote villages (with one more iteration of this process necessary to get reach every last remote post office). Exploring Alaska in this way you can visit communities such as Shishmaref, which recently voted to relocate from its island in the Bering Strait to a location on the mainland because rising sea levels are submerging the whole village. It is one of many shoreline communities in Alaska that are on the front lines of climate change. But I digress.

Shy of outright chartering planes to multiple villages in northern and western Alaska, timely and non-bank-breaking transportation options to villages like Shishmaref is scant. Ravn Alaska operates the most robust network of flights here, often village-hopping across several communities before ending back at the main hub (e.g. Nome). (See map below.) For the determined postal tourist it could be well worth the ~$100 per hop for the chance to check off multiple post offices across a stretch of Alaska with a single booking. Unfortunately, the planes are often on the ground for less than five or ten minutes, and company managers could not guarantee me that they wouldn't leave me marooned with no luggage in a place with no hotels or B&Bs, if the trip to and back from post office ran a couple minutes long. So while they were friendly to talk with over the phone, "we won't promise you anything but it's better to book sooner than later," is not exactly a prospect one can plan a trip around. There go the Bering Sea and Arctic Circle expeditions.

Ravn, if your social media guy is listening, help a guy out here!



A more modest exploration proved more manageable. I decided to make it out to a handful of less remote road-inaccessible villages along the southern Kenai peninsula in south-central Alaska. Most of the Kenai is accessible by car, and the city of Homer could be used as a launching point for visiting the several remaining outlying communities. This approach offered several interesting post offices, including a couple accessible to the public only by air, and others only by boat (in my instance, the actual mailboat!). There's another post office only accessible by driving through a three-mile, one-lane tunnel shared with train tracks. Sounds interesting to me!

For the village-hopping enthusiast intent on neither paying $300/night for a two-star hotel in Anchorage nor experiencing temperatures much below freezing, I found October to be a cost-effective and thermally acceptable time to visit this part of the state. Tourist season was over and many attractions and parks were closed for the season, but for our unique purposes that wasn't a primary concern. Practically speaking, travel costs were at least 60% lower and there were still several good hours of sunlight at this time of year.

By the Numbers

Despite comprising 17% of the land area of the United States, Alaska houses less than 1% of the nation's post offices. Of 30,624 active retail U.S. Post Offices in May of this year, Alaska had 206, ranking 44th of the 50 states. This placed it slightly ahead of Utah (197), but substantially less than several of our more compact states, including New Hampshire (232) and Vermont (267). Many communities not served by an 'official' post office in Alaska are served by Contract Postal Units (CPUs), many of which are also classified as Community Post Offices (CPOs). These 74 operations count in my book, bringing the grand total of Alaskan postal points of interest to just more than 280 (when you include facilities such as carrier annexes and mail processing annexes).

Less than one-third of all the postal operations in the state are legally accessible with a standard rental car driven out of Anchorage, meaning at least 200 postal facilities necessitate prior planning and reservation by plane or boat. During my 5.5 days in Alaska I was able to visit 43 post offices (15% of 280): 39 by car, three by plane, and one by boat.

USPS maintains 'official' post offices throughout rural corners of the Alaska, many of which are PTPOs: Part-Time Post Offices, postmaster-less ("POStPlan") operations that report directly to its USPS District office as opposed to a neighboring Postmaster. They would be known, as they are in most other corners of the country, as RMPOs—Remotely Managed Post Offices—if they were within 25 miles of some other post office that could manage them. Because most small-town post offices are reasonably close to (less than 25 miles away from) their neighbors, there were 12,000 RMPOs in operation around the country in May 2016 compared to 402 PTPOs. Of those 402 PTPOs 119 — about 30% — were in Alaska.

119 is by far and away the greatest PTPO count for any state. As of May 2016 Montana is next with 51; then Oregon: 24; New Mexico: 23; and Wyoming: 22. Texas, the second largest state in the country, has merely 21 of its 1,600+ post offices designated as PTPOs. Alaska also has the fewest number of RMPOs of any state: 4, several fewer than Delaware. This is effectively confirmation of the fact that villages in Alaska can be very far removed from their larger neighbors, and that many smaller Alaskan postal operations are contracted out.

A Little Anchoragement

Anchorage is the heart of Alaska: its 300,000 residents comprise 40% of the entire state's population. In many ways it's like any other U.S. city; it's got malls, parks, (some) historic buildings downtown, and cultural institutions for locals and tourists alike. Not to mention tons of suburban sprawl. It differs primarily in terms of climate, duration of sunlight (ranging from 6 to 18 hours a day), and accessibility to stunning surroundings.

Postally speaking, Anchorage is the only place in America where you can find an open post office at 10 PM and it will still be sunny. (Midyear, at least.) Anchorage's Main Post Office is located at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, and the facility also houses Alaska's primary mail processing facility. (You can also mail out to receive a North Pole postmark, "mailed from Santa," from this facility.) The road leading to this facility is Postmark Drive—nice touch, Anchorage/ANC. By far the largest postal facility in Alaska, the MPO/P&DC building houses six acres of floor space. The building was inaugurated in 1976. And most incredibly, the retail operations are open until 11 PM seven days a week. That's right, even on Sundays. Talk about service!

Anchorage, AK: Main Post Office and P&DC
Anchorage Main Post Office and P&DC

The main post office previously occupied a Federal Building downtown, which was constructed during the latter years of the New Deal (think: 1939-1940). That building still houses federal offices as well as an expansive Alaska visitors center. It can be found at the north end of West 4th Ave. between F St. and G St., kitty corner from the old Anchorage city hall and (another) visitors center.

Historic former main post office, Anchorage:
Old Anchorage post office

Anchorage has been without a primary downtown postal facility since the Downtown Station post office closed in 2013. Retail operations are available at a comparatively small unit in the corner of the fourth floor of Anchorage's 5th Avenue Mall (see below). (Carriers operate from another post office, about a mile to the east.) Great clerk, though!



One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that the majority of the post offices in Anchorage look almost exactly alike. But don't just take my word for it; see for yourself:

Collage of Anchorage post offices

It's like those post offices were all separated at birth! As you might suspect this is no coincidence; these buildings were all designed off the same plan and were constructed at the exact same point during the mid-1980s. It is said that one Postmaster General from the era encouraged this while anticipating growth in the region. The footprints for many of these buildings is identical to the square foot! The buildings' sloped roofs make sense given, shall we say, the prevalence of wintry Alaskan weather events.

Here's a selected snippet of data from USPS's Owned Facilities Report. This spurt of postal development extended to other communities in Alaska as well, and those POs bear a resemblance to what we've just seen above. We'll see a couple of these more outlying locations later on.

Some data from USPS's Owned Facilities Report. Gotta love FOIA.

Beyond all these facilities there are two others of note: Spenard Station, which actually houses the offices for the Anchorage Postmaster (at a side entrance, separate from the retail lobby); and Midtown Station, above whose retail windows resides USPS's Alaska District offices. Generally speaking you could expect to find both at a city's main post office / primary mail processing facility.

Anchorage, AK: Spenard Station post office


Anchorage, AK: Midtown Station post office


Add a couple more stations and a pair of CPUs and we've just about covered the postal network of Anchorage. Unfortunately two Anchorage-area POs were off-limits to little ol' civilian me: Elmendorf AFB and Fort Richardson (now known as Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson) each have operations behind guarded gates.

One nice touch, which I saw in operation at more than one Alaska post office, was the provision of hand trucks for public use in the customer lobby! You'll be thankful for it when you get a sizable package delivery (which many Alaskans do after receiving their annual Permanent Fund Dividend). Here's a triple-stack at one large post office in the area!

Helpful post office
I spy the makings of an awesome Office Olympics sport...

Alaska Bypass Mail

The U.S. Postal Service is subject to what's known as the Universal Service Obligation (USO). What it essentially means in practice is that the organization cannot discriminate to which communities it provides its services based on profitability; it must serve everyone. In fact, it must provide a "maximum degree of effective services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining."

Alaska, as with just about everything else, is a bit of a special case. With respect to the USO it begs several questions, such as: how are communities without roads to be provided with mail and freight services that anywhere else would be handled by ground surface transportation (i.e. trucks)? You can't just drive to your neighborhood Costco for bear-sized bulk packs of toilet paper or Cheerios. So how can these communities import goods from the greater outside world in any semblance of a cost-effective manner? And, of course, how does the Postal Service get regular letters to the remote reaches of the state?

Enter Intra-Alaska Mail Service and, for large shipments, Alaska Bypass Mail—a service relied on by thousands of Alaskans in dozens of villages across all corners of the state. It's basically an Alaskan hub-and-spoke air distribution system. A recent PRC report states it nicely: "Alaska Bypass Service allows mailers to ship goods such as food and other cargo on pallets directly to rural customers in Alaska. Commercial airline carriers deliver goods on pallets to hub airports ... Smaller airline companies or independent pilots then break down these pallets and deliver the goods to remote communities accessible only by air, which are commonly called bush sites. The shipped goods "bypass" the Postal Service's network." Bypass Mail isn't touched by USPS employees or mail processing equipment, where it would gum up the operations that handle letters and standard parcels.

So, starting from primary facilities in Anchorage and Fairbanks, certified airline contractors fly pallets of products to a handful of secondary airports at large towns (pop. a few thousand) located a few hundred miles away: air hubs. USPS even operated a couple of specialized facilities known as Mail Processing Annexes at two of these hubs, in Nome and Bethel (the latter of which closed upon completion of a newer postal facility). Here is the now-former Bethel facility, taken in 2000 by Postlandia friend John Gallagher:

Bethel Mail Processing Annex

From these air hubs Bypass Mail pallets are broken down and transferred via smaller "bush carrier" planes to their final destinations ("bush sites"). And at the end of the line? You're often left with bulk consumer-size cases of products secured in the back of a small plane (e.g. Cessna), ready for hand-off to the community's general store. The Washington Post has a fantastic slideshow, with descriptions, of the full Bypass Mail process in action. It'll open in a new tab so you won't lose your spot here; check it out.

I found Alaska-style grocery delivery surprisingly fun to watch. While not strictly speaking Bypass Mail at this location, you can watch the process in action as some gets delivered on bush planes to a couple of the villages we visit on the Kenai. You'll see more of the community in the next post. Here are a couple of images of groceries arriving in Port Graham, Alaska, for delivery to the Variety Store:

Bypass Mail delivery, ready for unpacking
Bypass Mail delivery

You can see that some of the supplies brought in include: cereal, juices, milk, and pet food; essentially, everything we take for granted on the mainland.

The Washington Post reports that 10-15% of Bypass Mail is actually soda.

There are no standard USPS carriers or even USPS-staffed post offices in dozens of these villages. Retail and P.O. Box services in such cases are handled by Contract Postal Unit (CPU)/Community Post Office (CPO).

Transporting items by air costs more than it does via truck, unfortunately, and so serving these rural communities costs USPS money. According to the Postal Regulatory Commission this is part of the cost of supplying services to all American communities per the Universal Service Obligation. That PRC report stated: "With Alaska Bypass Service, the Postal Service pays for the cost of air transportation from hub airports to bush sites. The Alaska Air Subsidy is the difference between this cost of air transportation from hub airports to bush sites and the average cost of ground transportation if it were available. ... The Alaska Air Subsidy has declined since FY 2011 from $123 million to $107 million in FY 2015." How many villages in Alaska are served by Bypass Mail service? On the order of 150, the overwhelming majority of which are not accessible by the primary Alaska road network. (Deadhorse, at the far north end of the Dalton Highway, near the Arctic Ocean, is an exception.) According to a USPS Inspector General report "more than 180 of [Alasks's] rural communities accessible only by air year round." Here is an excerpt of a map of Bypass Mail air hubs and bush sites, from that OIG report. A list of communities served (sorted by their respective hubs) can be found in USPS Handbook PO-508.

Partial Alaska Bypass village map

For Bypass Mail communities it is critical that USPS manage the hub-and-spoke network in an optimal manner. A recent change for one remote village proved to be the difference between life and death for one pilot in Alaska's unforgiving landscape, and the difference between well-stocked store shelves and hungry residents in one Native village during the harsh Alaska winter. You can read about the experience of the citizens of Quinhagak after USPS decided to use an unexpected tertiary village of Togiak as an air hub for Quinhagak, as opposed to well-established Bethel, ("queen-a-hawk") here.

Hope you enjoyed your thorough introduction to Postlandia's take on Alaska. There's plenty more from this story to come, including trips to a couple of Native villages you can only reach by boat or by air. Come tour a the Halibut Capital of the World, as well as historic Native Russian Orthodox village next time on Postlandia! I have videos of landing and taking off from the airport with the Crooked Runway. Go to our next Alaskan installment here.

1 comment:

mary! said...

This is really neat! I never really thought about how postal services must work in Alaska or other remote places. Looking forward to reading the rest of your series.