The U.S. Postal Service, bowing to pressure from Alaska's elected officials, confirmed Friday it is in the process of rolling back a rate hike for parcel shipments to rural Alaska.
The reversal came after a meeting Thursday between Sen. Mark Begich and Postmaster General Patrick Donahue.
"During that meeting, the Postmaster General said that the new standard post rates for parcels had a disproportionate effect on the parts of Alaska that can't be reached by roads," according to a statement provided by Ernie Swanson, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service in Alaska. "Therefore, we are working to roll back these rates to ease the burden on impacted Alaskan customers."
Begich said in a statement he expected the rollback, which is only being applied to rural Alaska post offices, to take effect next week.
Backlash in Alaska erupted swiftly after the financially troubled federal mail service introduced a sweeping set of national rate changes on Jan. 26. Those changes included changing the name of the parcel post service to standard post, and setting standard post rates close to those of priority mail.
For rural Alaskans without transit or road access, that shift translated to a hefty cost burden. Customers discovered that it cost an average of 35 percent more to mail heavier packages, officials said.
Residents and local officials in rural Alaska, including Middy Johnson, the mayor of Unalakleet, were quick to protest the change. With the announced rollback, rural communities without road access will see rates drop back to pre-Jan. 26 levels.
On Friday, John Friess, manager of corporate communications for the Postal Service's western region, said the impact on Alaska's rural population was an "unintended consequence" of the broader rate changes.
"It certainly wasn't meant for that," Friess said.
The postal service is currently revisiting its pricing, he said, and determining the parameters of the change. He added that customers will be notified once the rollback takes effect. .
"From our perspective, to ease the burden on the Alaskan consumers who are feeling the pinch of this, we'd like to get it done as soon as possible," Friess said.
The Postal Service could not confirm an exact timeline, but both Begich and staff for Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the changes could take effect as soon as next week.
Also on Thursday, the Postal Reform Act passed out of the bipartisan Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee to the Senate floor. Begich, who sits on the committee, backed several amendments to the legislation, including one that gives the Postal Regulatory Commission a year to study whether the Postal Service has a monopoly on package shipments in rural areas. The legislation would freeze rates until the study is completed, Begich said.
In a telephone conference with reporters Thursday, Begich, who sits on the committee, said he expected the study would produce strict guidelines for when the rates could be increased again for Alaska's rural areas.
The reform bill also places Douglas and Auke Bay on a list of protected rural post offices. Other amendments direct the Postal Service to respect the laws of dry communities when the bill allows the mail carrier to start shipping alcohol, and to protect the bypass mail program, Begich said.
Reach Devin Kelly at email@example.com or 257-4314.
By DEVIN KELLY