Routes less traveled

Thomas R. Temin

On one of my daily running routes I pass a service station with a bank of three pay phones facing the street. Occasionally in the early morning hours I see someone, often a laborer or construction worker, pull up and use one of the phones. But one recent morning I noticed that the phones had vanished.

Businesses that operate pay phones are yanking them out all over the place. A minor hoopla flared up a few months back when a famous and often-photographed phone booth in the Mojave Desert was pulled out because of lack of use.

The companies that operate pay phones say demand for public phones is falling, in part because so many people have personal wireless phones. Whatever the reason, pay phones simply aren't profitable.

I'm in the habit of using my cell phone in airports and such places, sometimes only a few steps away from banks of gleaming pay phones. Even though wireless service is often lousy and it seems the batteries always die at a crucial moment, it's easier to take notes and look up numbers when you can sit with your papers in your lap.

The fate of pay phones contrasts markedly with what the Postal Service has in mind for local post offices. Mail volume may be declining, but the service can't arbitrarily shut down offices.

In its five-year strategic plan, USPS wants to spend billions on information technology to deploy new services because officials nervously fear that paper mail is a dead-end market [GCN, Nov. 6, Page 9].

Postal officials envision services such as printing and local distribution of electronic documents, plus electronic notifications to senders about mail status, as ways to replace revenue from traditional services.

More and more, USPS'even though it is not a federal agency in the strictest sense because it does not receive congressionally appropriated funds'will raise the hackles of companies that will argue USPS is the federal government competing with industry.

When the shrinking of government and rise of privatization are the mantras in Congress and the halls of policy, Postal Service leaders are certainly taking a bold stance. Those disputes will no doubt end up in court. It will be a test of entrepreneurial government.


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