Last winter there was almost no snow, but that might not be the case this year. With snow comes the snow plows, and with plowing there are inevitable mailbox casualties. It’s a situation that is the result of the conflict between two important services: getting mail delivered, and getting roads cleared to ensure that mail delivery vehicles — as well as all other traffic — is able to pass safely.
New Paltz Highway Superintendent Chris Marx understands the problem quite well. Mailboxes for rural delivery must be installed in the right-of-way, meaning that they’re quite close to where those plows pass by. More often than not, mailboxes are knocked over by the snow or slush coming off of the plow, rather than the blade itself. “You can tell if the plow hit it,” Marx said; those mailboxes are completed smashed, rather than simply being upended and buried.
His colleague Richard Klotz, highway superintendent in Lloyd, agreed with that assessment. “Often the driver didn’t hit it, but 95% of the time I’ll fix them,” with the exception being during particularly bad storms. That’s because there’s not enough man-hours for repairs when additional plowing and winter work is pressing. Truth be told, however, even if a mailbox is hit by a plow, no responsibility to repair or replace it falls to the municipality.
Local postmasters were not permitted to answer questions for this story, instead referring them to a spokesperson, George B. Flood. That was unfortunate, because when asked about mailbox installation, he recommended asking the local postmaster for recommendations based on the specific road. In general, however, he said, “For safety and efficiency reasons, curbside mailboxes are installed at a height of 41 to 45 inches from the road surface to the bottom of the mailbox, or point of mail entry. Mailboxes are set back six to eight inches from the front face of the curb or road edge to the mailbox door. Extensive information about mail receptacles and their placement can be found on our website at usps.com/manage/mailboxes.htm.
According to Marx, they also can’t be mounted on anything thicker than four inches, lest it be deemed a “dangerous fixed object” that could cause harm to the town equipment or employee. Fire hydrants, which are certainly wider than four inches across, are marked with special reflectors each winter to ensure plow drivers steer clear.
Marx, like Klotz, is committed to fixing mailboxes when possible, despite there being no legal requirement to do so. He recalls that when he first worked for the town in the 1980s, “You were on your own,” and by the ’90s the prevailing response was that if a driver “really blasted one, you fixed it.” Now, however, Marx has a crew that assesses and repairs damaged mailboxes as best as they are able, sometimes returning in the spring for a more permanent repair.
“It’s a nuisance,” Marx explained, because “a lot of people aren’t handy, and can’t” effect repairs themselves. “It’s just another service I’ve decided to keep up on while I’m here.” He estimates that the hit to his budget, including labor and replacement mailboxes — which he buys in bulk when they’re on sale — is around $500 annually. That number includes putting in a new post when needed, which generally can’t be done until spring.
However, there are limits. Many times a mailbox that gets damaged wasn’t installed according to the guidelines Flood referred to. “Is the post rotted?” Marx said he’d want to know. “Did you install it with more than two screws?” In the case of one box that he’d been told was usually the only one damaged on a particular road, Marx discovered it was only 19 inches off the ground and mounted in the back of a ditch where it was likely to get the brunt from any passing plow. “I’m not going to fix it if it’s held on with bungee cords and duct tape, or mounted on cement blocks,” Marx said.
Klotz and Marx were the only highway superintendents successfully contacted for this story, and others may not opt to replace mailboxes under any circumstances. Even in towns where they do get replaced, that can take time, and a day without a mailbox can mean a day without mail delivery. Flood agrees that a call to the local highway department is the best way to find out if they’re amenable to helping, but that box is needed to get the carrier to drop anything off.
“In some cases,” said the postal spokesman, “we do see short-term creative placements of mailboxes, or residents will ask us to hold the mail for a short period until the replacement of the box. But we do need that box to make a delivery on a regular basis. For successful mail delivery during and after storms, we ask for the cooperation of our customers and municipal officials to keep access to mailboxes clear of snow and ice so that our employees can deliver the mail and return home safely to their families at the end of the work day.”
Flood did not respond to questions about the criteria for determining if mail on a given route should be delivered on foot or from a vehicle, and whether or not there is a process by which a review of that decision may be requested. Mailboxes in more densely-populated areas where carriers walk from stop to stop are usually mounted on the houses themselves, far from the depredations of snowy physics. Lacking evidence to the contrary, it appears that the decision to place a mailbox in harm’s way is made solely by postal officials.
As frustrating as mailbox destruction can be, it appears that an attitude of gratitude might be in order should town workers agree to repair or replace one after a storm. Neither Klotz nor Marx are seeking thanks, but they are each aware that they are doing more than what’s required. There is one thing that Marx did specifically have on his wish list, however: he’d love to see town residents stop putting their garbage cans in the road, as “it only ever seems to snow on garbage day.” That, however, is a story for another day.