The Steamship Authority is proposing significant, across-the-board rate hikes in an effort to cover expected losses in revenue and budget shortfalls during the 2021 operating season.

At a port council meeting Wednesday morning, SSA treasurer Mark Rozum announced the proposed rate adjustments, which include at least a seven per cent increase in almost all vehicle fares. Standard fare rates would go up $4 to $6 each way in the off season, while peak summer weekend rates would increase $15, from the current $100 fare to $115 on the Vineyard route.

The increases also included hikes in parking fees of $50 per year and a passenger rate increase of $1, during both the summer and off season. Excursion rates would go up between $2.50 and $3.50 depending on the season, and the cost of commuter books would go up as well.

“Audible sigh,” one of the port council members said after hearing the news.

Mr. Rozum said due to a drop in revenue that can be traced to the peak of the pandemic this spring and into early summer, the boat line will have to make up some $8 million in lost fares, about $5 million of which would have to come from the Vineyard route. The fare increases were reflected in the proposed $112 million 2021 operating budget, which Mr. Rozum also presented Wednesday to the port council.

The full boat line board will take up the proposed fare hikes and budget at its meeting Oct. 20. A vote will be planned for November. If approved, the fare increases will take effect Jan. 1, 2021.

But Wednesday’s port council meeting served as a preview of the hard decisions that lie ahead.

“It’s really, month after month, the passenger ridership that is very soft that is driving these proposed rate increases,” Mr. Rozum told the council.

While rate adjustments are not unusual, the proposed increases this year are larger than in years past and reflect the economic instabilities that are affecting many businesses due to the pandemic. Until this year the SSA has operated comfortably in the black for some six decades without state and federal subsidy.

But facing a $15 million operating deficit after traffic crashed this spring, boat line leaders reached out to state lawmakers for help. A temporary amendment in the state budget passed over the summer relieved the five port communities from the liability of covering a budget shortfall this year, leaving the state with the responsibility to cover the losses — a one-time fix that is unlikely to be repeated.

On Wednesday Mr. Davis and Mr. Rozum pointed to the fact that passenger traffic has fallen off a cliff while vehicle traffic, which also saw steep declines from March through May, returned to robust levels once summer got under way.

“The issue that we’ve been seeing here, since the springtime, is . . . the fact that we are running an operating schedule based on vehicle demand,” Mr. Davis said. “And the passengers, whether they come or not, are still needing by and large to run that same service because of the vehicle demand. So it highlights that we need to be looking at a model where the vehicles are picking up a little higher percentage of the cost of that service.”

The proposed 2021 operating budget was prepared based on a pre-pandemic period running from March 1, 2019 to Feb. 29, 2020, and assumes that passenger ridership will be at 90 per cent of those numbers during the 2021 year, while vehicle ridership will be at 100 per cent. Operating costs are expected to increase one per cent.

“That’s a forecast,” Mr. Rozum said. “That’s something we are going to monitor between now and next month for the final month of the budget. If the budget was put together three months ago, that number, or all these numbers, would be significantly lower.”

Projected operating revenue of about $112 million in 2021 represents a $5.7 million decrease over the 2020 budget, and a net operating loss of about $1.4 million, tracked primarily to steep drops in expected passenger and parking revenue of about 14 and 19 per cent respectively.

Because the SSA normally operates with an expected $7 million surplus, Mr. Rozum said the boat line would have to make up about $8 million in rate adjustments to balance the budget, leading to the need for the seven per cent across-the-board increase in fares.

“The biggest thing this year was the massive loss in passenger revenue which was offsetting vehicle prices in the past,” Mr. Davis said. “It’s a little bit more than what we had looked for last year.”

Along with the $15 increase in peak weekend vehicle fares and the $4 to $6 increase in off-season standard fares, summer excursion fares will go up $3.50 and an off-season excursion fares will increase $2.50. The 10-ride coupon book prices will go up $60, and all vehicles longer than 20 feet in overall length would see a seven per cent rate hike.

Commuter passenger book prices will also increase, with the 10-ride passenger book increasing by $8 and the 46-ride commuter book increased by $17.

Even larger increases are proposed for the Nantucket route.

SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll said the bulk of the increase will come from peak-season vehicle fares through the $15 one-way increase to Friday, Saturday and Sunday summer travel. The increase will widen the price difference between weekday and weekend travel from $10 to $20.

“We went higher than that on purpose, because that’s the whole point of that rate category,” Mr. Driscoll said. “The gap is widening.”

While some Nantucket port council representatives expressed concern about the fare hikes, noting at one point that it was cheaper to fly to Florida than to go on the fast ferry, there was broad recognition that adjustments were necessary.

“The back-to-back pretty significant increases is notable,” said council chairman Ed Washburn. “But this is sort of the reality we are in.”

Mr. Davis said he expected to see public comment from the port towns throughout the process.

“We don’t take this lightly,” he said.