Passenger traffic to the Vineyard on Steamship Authority ferries fell to its lowest level in more than a decade in March, more than 11 per cent below that for the same month last year.

Not since 1997, said SSA general manager Wayne Lamson, had fewer people visited for the month. And it was not only passenger numbers which plunged. The number of trucks coming and going — another key indicator of economic activity — was down almost eight per cent on the previous March.

While there were a couple of factors which made this March particularly bad — the weather was poor and Easter fell in April this year and March last year — the longer-term numbers are not much more encouraging.

Since the start of the year, SSA numbers show passenger traffic down 7.9 per cent, car traffic down 7.8 per cent and truck traffic down 7.6 per cent compared with 2008.

Perhaps more troubling are the boat line’s booking numbers for the coming season. They are down about 10 per cent.

On the upside, though, advance bookings are looking better than they were.

“Back in January and February,” Mr. Lamson said, “we were looking at 12, 13 per cent [declines in bookings], so it’s improving somewhat.”

The traffic numbers for the first three months of the year, and the future bookings measure different things, he suggested.

The lower number of passengers over the winter probably largely reflected fewer people commuting to the Island to work. The reduced numbers of trucks, particularly small trucks, also supports the view that the decline is related to the drop-off in construction activity.

Advance bookings, however, serve more as a leading indicator for the tourist season.

“It doesn’t look good,” said Mr. Lamson, “but perhaps people are waiting.”

In support of the theory that people are not planning their vacations so far ahead, he cited activity over the past couple of weeks.

“At the beginning of last week, everything was pretty much open, and by late in the week, all the space was gone. We ended up adding a couple of freight boats Friday to accommodate demand,” he said.

“We’re seeing the same for this weekend. The weather forecast is good, so we’re adding trips again.

“So passenger numbers are up 5.9 per cent for the first two weeks of April, and cars are up 3.2 per cent, which is a hopeful sign.”

If this visitor behavior is any guide, it could mean this season will see more last-minute decisions taken by tourists, and good weather might yet produce a better season than the early figures indicate.

But the various ferry lines cannot bank on that. Thus the SSA has progressively reduced service over recent months, albeit with flexibility built in to allow more runs if needed.

And other operators to the Island also have reduced services.

Most recently, Mr. Lamson noted a decision by New England Fast Ferry to reduce its service between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

“Last year, they operated eight daily trips on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I believe they now will drop this to five,” he said.

“We will be looking now to amend their license to account for this change,” he added.

Last year, New England Fast Ferry suffered a 16 per cent drop in its ridership. This year, as well as reducing services, it has announced a reduction in its fares, from $70 to $50 for the round trip between New Bedford to Oak Bluffs.

New England Fast Ferry also is to try another bold experiment, given the state of the economy. As a trial they will run direct service from New York to the Island.

The first such run will happen over the Fourth of July long weekend. The company is planning to bring about 100 people up from New York and New Jersey on Friday, July 3, and then take them back again on Monday, July 6.

The background is that the ferry company acquired SeaStreak, which operates four fast ferries in the New York area, about a year ago. The 200-mile trip from New York will take about five hours.

At their monthly meeting Tuesday in New Bedford, Steamship Authority governors agreed to allow the service to use the SSA terminal at Oak Bluffs to disembark the passengers.

In other business at Tuesday’s meeting, the SSA governors renewed an agreement with Island Transport, for a $5,000 annual fee, to use the bus stand at the Vineyard Haven terminal for its tour buses. The SSA also will sell Island Transport tour tickets, at a 20 per cent commission, at its terminal.

The governors also approved increases to parking rates at SSA lots on the mainland. Year-round parking at the Woods Hole lot will go up from $800 to $850, and will go up from $575 to $600 in the Palmer avenue lot. The seasonal rates will increase from $400 to $425.