WASHINGTON -- Mailing a letter is about to get a little more expensive.
Regulators on Tuesday approved a temporary price hike of 3 cents for a first-class stamp, bringing the charge to 49 cents a letter in an effort to help the Postal Service recover from severe mail decreases brought on after the 2008 economic downturn.
Many consumers won't feel the price increase immediately. Forever stamps, good for first-class postage whatever the rate, can be purchased at the lower price until the new rate is effective Jan. 26.
The higher rate will last no more than two years, allowing the Postal Service to recoup $2.8 billion in losses. By a 2-1 vote, the independent Postal Regulatory Commission rejected a request to make the price hike permanent.
The higher cost "will last just long enough to recover the loss," Commission Chairman Ruth Y. Goldway said. Bulk mail, periodicals and package service rates rise 6 percent, which is likely to draw significant consternation from the mail industry.
Its groups have opposed any price increase beyond the current 1.7 percent rate of inflation. They say charities using mass mailings and bookstores competing with online retailer Amazon will be among those who suffer. Greeting card companies also have criticized the plans.
The Postal Service is an independent agency that does not depend on tax money for its operations but is subject to congressional control. Under federal law, it can't raise prices more than the rate of inflation without approval from the commission.
The service says it lost $5 billion in the last fiscal year and has been trying to get Congress to pass legislation to help with its financial woes, including an end to Saturday mail delivery and reduced payments on retiree health benefits. The figures through Sept. 30 were actually an improvement for the agency from a $15.9 billion loss in 2012.
The post office has struggled for years with declining mail volume as a result of growing Internet use and a 2006 congressional requirement that it make annual $5.6 billion payments to cover expected health care costs for future retirees. It has defaulted on three of those payments.
The regulators Tuesday stopped short of making the price increases permanent, saying the Postal Service had conflated losses it suffered as a result of Internet competition with business lost because of the Great Recession. They ordered the agency to develop a plan to phase out the higher rates once the lost revenue is recouped. It's unclear if that would take rates for first-class postage back to 46 cents in 2016 or to a level somewhere in between that takes into account future inflation.
The new price of a postcard stamp, raised by a penny to 34 cents in November, also is effective next month.