The Steamship Authority foresees another tough economic year ahead, with its 2010 preliminary draft budget projecting a further decrease in operating revenue.

The draft, presented at Tuesday’s meeting of the board of governors on Nantucket, expects passenger revenues to decline 2.1 per cent and freight revenue to fall 4.6 per cent.

Even when offset by an expected 11.4 per cent rise in rent revenue from barge operations, the overall decline is expected to be 2.1 per cent. Total operating revenue is expected to be just over $81 million.

On the positive side, however, the boat line budget will be padded by almost $5.5 million expected to come from federal grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Without stimulus money, the SSA’s net income would have slumped 46 per cent for the year. With it, net income will be up a healthy 34 per cent to just over $9 million.

The bottom line for customers is that the boat line does not anticipate having to raise rates next year.

Governors also responded to another consequence of the flat economy, by allowing New England Fast Ferry to cancel its unprofitable winter service between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

Winter ridership on the ferry, which was largely contractors coming to the Island for work, collapsed last year along with construction here. The ferry averaged just five passengers for each of its 410 trips during the winter months.

The revenue did not cover even the cost of fuel, much less the payroll and other expenses.

Thus there will be no fast ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard from Dec. 1 through March 31, at least for the coming year.

The board resolved to revisit the decision after that.

In other business, governors approved new summer and fall schedules for next year, which will be only marginally changed from this year.

And they approved opening dates for reservations for next summer and fall. In 2010, Islanders will be able to make reservations under the Headstart program, beginning Jan. 6 and until Jan. 15, for up to five trips, before the general public. Three of the five reservations may be transferrable.