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Modern mail trucks roll onto Vashon

Carrier Marilyn Ripley sits behind the wheel of one of the new trucks. - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Carrier Marilyn Ripley sits behind the wheel of one of the new trucks.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

In the next couple of weeks, Islanders will notice a piece of the big city rolling along Vashon roads. The arrival of seven large, white government-issued mail trucks — replacing the driver-owned civilian cars that currently serve Island mail routes — marks a new era in mail delivery on Vashon. It also marks a new era for nationwide postal service.

Several years ago, the National Rural Carriers’ Association — the union that represents Vashon’s mail carriers — ratified a labor contract requiring the government to provide rural drivers with government-issued mail trucks, said Susan Griffin, Vashon’s postmaster.

The transition from driver-owned delivery cars to the government-issued trucks began in rural towns on the East Coast and has gradually moved west,  Griffin said. All across the nation, post offices in small towns have been taking on used mail trucks from cities that upgraded their fleets.

“We’re finally getting caught up,” Griffin said.

Last week two of the boxy, iconic mail trucks with red and blue stripes down the side arrived on the Island from California.

“When they came I went out and kissed one of them,” said Marilyn Ripley, a cheerful woman who delivers mail on Vashon. “This, to me, is very exciting.”

The change is a welcome one for most of the Vashon Post Office’s seven carriers. Until now, they’ve been responsible for purchasing their own delivery vehicles. Most have footed the bill for special SUVs or station wagons designed for mail carriers with the steering wheel and pedals on the right side of the car. A couple carriers with longer legs drive regular minivans while sitting half-way in the passenger seat, a method they refer to as driving sidesaddle.

Lola Sherry, a Vashon carrier who drives sidesaddle, said that she has gotten used to reaching her arm and foot over to control her van and often sees seeing other drivers do a double-take when they pass her on the road.

“I felt like it was a tourist attraction sometimes,” she said.

Most burdensome for the Vashon carriers, however, has been the gas and constant maintenance required to keep their vehicles going. The seven carriers are given a monthly vehicle allowance, but Gail Green, delivery supervisor at the post office, said the allowance has failed to keep up with the rising cost of gas and vehicle maintenance.

Ripley, who delivers mail out of her a right-hand drive Jeep Cherokee, said she takes her car to the shop about once a month and regularly drops $1,000 on repairs.

“This is going to be good financially for the carriers,” Green said.

Reed Fitzpatrick, another Vashon carrier, agreed. Fitzpatrick, who currently drives a regular minivan, has gone through five vehicles in nearly 30 years of delivering mail on Vashon. He said the cars’ tires and brakes must be replaced often, and the long miles are also hard on the engine and transmission.

Now, all of the gas and repairs for the new trucks — 1994 models called Long Life Vehicles or LLVs  — will be covered by the postal service.

“It sure takes a burden off us,” Fitzpatrick said.

The transition will mean changes for some Vashon households as well. At 7 feet tall, the new mail trucks are larger than the vehicles the carriers now drive, Griffin said, meaning some Islanders will have to raise their mailboxes a bit while others might need to trim low-hanging trees around their boxes.

In addition, the lack of rear windows in the new trucks means carriers will no longer be able drive in reverse. Islanders with mailboxes in narrow spots or on single-lane roads may have to move them to locations that are easier to access.

“In spots that are steep or narrow they may have to move their mailboxes to the main roads,” Griffin said.

But overall, Griffin said, the change will be good for the Island. The post office has seen an increase in mail theft on Vashon, and Griffin believes putting official-looking mail trucks on the road will make it more difficult for thieves in civilian cars to approach mailboxes.

“It’s better for safety reasons; if you see something at your mailbox, it is recognizable,” she said.

The carriers went off-Island to practice driving the new trucks about six months ago. Still, last week the crew seemed both anxious and excited about the upcoming transition to the unfamiliar vehicles. The carriers also just expanded their routes to take on a couple hundred more mailboxes each after another carrier retired and the position wasn’t filled.

Fitzpatrick said he hoped Islanders will be understanding if they see a carrier struggling to get to a box or if their mail doesn’t arrive at the normal time.

“We’ve all been trained, but there’s a learning curve,” he said.

 

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