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When Boston mail plant shuts, there’s no need to replace it

September 27, 2011

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IF THE US Postal Service closes its Boston processing facility, it would be a blow to the 1,300 people who work there, and for their communities. But the volume of mail is declining sharply because of e-mail, online bill payment, and other changes. Some cutbacks are necessary, and building a huge new processing plant in South Boston, as is currently planned, makes little sense: It might be obsolete before it opens.

Therefore, the recent news that the US Postal Service is rethinking its Boston plans isn’t entirely unwelcome. The current processing plant, located along the Fort Point Channel next to South Station, is already slated for replacement. It occupies a large swath of land that’s desperately needed for economic development. If the plant were to close earlier than scheduled, the state could move more quickly on plans to expand South Station, clearing the way for more frequent train service to Worcester, the completion of the long-planned South Coast commuter line to Fall River and New Bedford, and, eventually, more high-speed rail to New York.

Meanwhile, the redesign of the site along Fort Point Channel can and should include offices, commercial space, and greater public access. As the activity now building along the waterfront extends southward along the channel, what is now a drab, underused industrial waterway will evolve instead into a beautiful spot for cafes, biking, and boat rides.

Conditioning all these improvements on the construction of a new postal facility will only delay them - and add significant costs. Under an onerous deal the state signed with the Postal Service in its desperation to expand South Station, various state agencies are obliged to pay for a new processing plant about a mile away, on land owned by Massport and the Department of Defense. That same money could be used immediately on many stalled transportation projects, saving and creating good construction jobs.

No one should underestimate the pain of disruption for the workers whose jobs would move to the suburbs or, in the worst-case scenario, be eliminated altogether. Any redevelopment plan should strive to provide opportunities for them. As for the workers at the processing plant, the city should insist that as many as possible be retained at other postal processing facilities in eastern Massachusetts, in places such as Waltham and Brockton. Any who are laid off should receive retraining, potentially for jobs created through the expansion of South Station.

The Postal Service isn’t going away, but steep cutbacks seem inevitable. With so much public money involved, it would be foolish for the state and federal governments to invest heavily in a snail-mail future. The better choices - high-speed rail, expanded commuter service, and home, office, and retail development - are clearly visible.

It’s tough to lose a large employer in the city of Boston. But rarely has discouraging economic news created so many encouraging possibilities.