The United States Postal Service has officially been given the green light to dial back a rate hike on parcel shipments to rural Alaska.
On Friday, the Postal Regulatory Commission, the body that oversees the postal service, approved a request to introduce a new pricing category for Alaskan communities without road access. For 187 zip codes in Alaska, the new category of "Limited Overland Routes" will be in place by the end of March, said John Friess, manager of corporate communications for USPS's western region.
With the new category, customers in hubs like Juneau, Bethel and Nome, and villages all over rural Alaska will see the cost of mailing heavier packages return to the rates in place prior to Jan. 26. That was the day a set of national rate changes took effect, which included changing the name of "parcel post" to "standard post" and making standard post rates comparable to priority rates.
But as USPS officials later acknowledged, the new rates had a disproportionate impact on parts of Alaska without transit or road access, costing customers an average of 35 percent more to mail heavier packages.
In a statement Friday, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, who met with Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe on Feb. 6 to lobby for the rollback, applauded the commission's approval.
"Today was a huge win in my fight to roll back these unfair rate hikes for Alaska communities off the road system," Begich said.
Local officials also cheered the news. Bobbi Andrews, the mayor of Norton Sound community of Saint Michael, said she hoped the revised shipping rates would help keep prices down in local stores.
"The ripple through our economy is great because of our dependence on freight from outside the community," said Alice Ruby, mayor of Dillingham, adding that the rollback is a "positive step."
She said rural Alaskans recognize the need to fund the postal service.
"It's just we're so heavily dependent on them, we feel like there has to be some other way than breaking our backs."
The mayor of Unalakleet, Middy Johnson, said he and his family have avoided sending packages for the last month.
"Definitely will be good for the future," Johnson said of the rate rollback.
In his February meeting with Begich, Donahoe promised a fast turn-around, saying the rollback could take effect as early as the following week. But the rate change first required approval from the postal service's Board of Governors as well as the Postal Regulatory Commission, which extended the process.
The commission had 30 days to complete the review process. In this case, it only took two weeks, said Ruth Goldway, chair of the regulatory commission.
"We tried very hard to make sure we could move this proposal forward quickly," Goldway said.
She said the decision to approve the proposal stemmed from the Postal Regulatory Commission's role in addressing "rate shock," or increases that are too large for people to absorb at one time.
When USPS made its initial presentation on changing the package services, the commission did not have the opportunity to look at the impact on rural Alaska, Goldway said.
Once Sen. Begich and other legislators brought the issue to the fore, the commission was sympathetic, Goldway said. The next step was coming up with a special product category within standard post that would maintain the lower rates. The commission also determined that the postal service could still cover its costs despite the rollback.
Goldway described the change in pricing as a "special" occurrence.
"I'm not aware of any time where we've responded to a particular group of citizens and rolled back the price this way," Goldway said.
Reach Devin Kelly at email@example.com or 257-4314.
By DEVIN KELLY