The Steamship Authority ended 2020 with an operating deficit far smaller than anticipated last spring, general manager Robert Davis told the SSA governors at their monthly meeting Tuesday.

As a result, the SSA will not need to seek significant financial assistance from the state, Mr. Davis said.

“If there is an ask, it’s going to be relatively small,” Mr. Davis told the board.

The boat line ended the calendar year with an operating deficit of about $12.5 million, according to unaudited financials released Tuesday.

The number stood in contrast with the dire forecast in April 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic bit down just when ferry traffic should have been starting to go up, and the SSA began racking up losses of about $1 million a week.

In an unprecedented move, Mr. Davis issued an urgent plea to Gov. Charlie Baker for a state bailout, suggesting that the boat line, which operates without state and federal subsidy, could be unable to fulfill its mission to provide dependable year-round ferry service and necessary goods to the two Islands.

The SSA annual operating budget is around $100 million. The boat line annually carries about three million passengers, 475,000 cars and 195,000 trucks between the two Islands. Summer ferry traffic ordinarily more than makes up for winter operating losses.

Late in the summer the state legislature passed a bill authorizing relief that would shift the burden of any deficit from taxpayers in the five port communities to the commonwealth on a one-time basis.

But the unaudited financials released Tuesday showed a much-improved picture for the ferry line after a busy summer and fall despite restrictions imposed by the pandemic. While passenger traffic has remained sharply off since last spring, car and truck traffic have both stayed steady and nearly matched pre-pandemic levels during the peak season months of July, August and September.

Further, Mr. Davis said the $12.5 million shortfall has been offset by federal funding the SSA has received from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act and the 5307 (Urbanized Area Formula Funding) program, adding that the boat line is seeking more such grants.

“We continue to work on the new round of funding,” he said.

The year-end financial numbers still need to be audited, a process that’s already underway, before any request can be made to the state, Mr. Davis also said.

Board members expressed relief that the losses were not greater in a year of unprecedented events.

“The numbers could have been a lot worse,” said Falmouth governor and board chairman Kathryn Wilson.

There were also trip cutbacks; SSA ferries made 21,423 trips in 2020, a decrease of 3,074 from the budgeted number, Mr. Davis said.

On the Vineyard route last year, 30 trips were canceled for mechanical reasons, 249 were canceled due to weather and more than 2,000 for what Mr. Davis called “traffic demands” — mostly low bookings, with a few instances of crew shortages due to Covid-19, he said.

Nantucket travelers saw 31 mechanical cancellations, 198 weather cancellations and more than 1,100 trips called off because of traffic demands, Mr. Davis said.

Correlating closely to the drop in passenger traffic, embarkation fees paid by the boat line to port towns were down about 31.6 per cent in 2020, treasurer/comptroller Mark Rozum told the board.

In other business Tuesday, boat line governors grew skeptical when asked to approve a request from the owner of the Pied Piper ferry, which operates between Falmouth and Edgartown, to add a private shuttle service between Falmouth and the Vineyard Haven Marina.

Falmouth attorney Robert Ament told the board that Cape and Island Transport owner Vincent J. Geoffroy, who also owns the marina and nearby Garde East restaurant, wants to purchase a small ferry to carry employees of both Beach Road businesses.

“It is difficult to find employees who can afford to live on the Vineyard,” Mr. Ament said.

The capacity of the new vessel would be fewer than 40 passengers, he said.

If not for his existing license to serve Edgartown, where the Pied Piper ties up at Memorial Wharf, Mr. Geoffroy would not be required to seek SSA approval for the proposed new service, Mr. Ament told the board.

“Anybody else would be able to do it without coming to the Authority,” he said. “I think that might be taken into account.”

The request is for one early-morning trip and one late-evening trip, although a midday service may also be needed, Mr. Ament said.

Timed to depart after the last SSA trip to Woods Hole, the evening shuttle would also serve Cape-based diners at Garde East restaurant who do not want to rush their late dinner, Mr. Ament said.

Mr. Ament also asked that marina and restaurant employees taking the shuttle be exempt from SSA licensing fees.

“It isn’t so much the money, the fees itself; it’s the concept that employees . . . working at the marina or the restaurant that’s next door, that’s not what I think we thought of as scheduled ferry service or the type of passengers for which a fee should be paid,” the attorney said.

But in the face of opposition from all five governors, Mr. Ament dropped the request and asked simply for an approval of the two trips a day, with license fees paid for all travelers.

Nonetheless, board members remained unfriendly to the concept of licensing away more potential foot passengers.

“Perhaps . . . someone could educate me why we would create a new service to carry passengers, to replicate a service that we already provide?” said Vineyard James Malkin. “The lack of foot traffic and foot passengers last year was our operating loss,” he added.

New Bedford governor Moira Tierney, Barnstable governor Robert Jones and Nantucket governor Robert Ranney all said they found the request confusing.

“Why is this coming up now, and why hasn’t it been a problem in previous years?” Mr. Ranney asked. “I’m not convinced that there’s a need for this.”

Mr. Jones and Ms. Tierney asked for another month to digest the staff report on the proposed new shuttle.

Governors did approve an amendment to the Cape and Island Transport license allowing the company to substitute its smaller Sandpiper ferry for the Pied Piper on occasion.

Also Tuesday, governors approved a $208,610 change order for Jay Cashman, contractor for the waterside reconstruction at the Woods Hole terminal, to cover unforeseen labor expenses caused when underwater drilling hit obstructions beneath the sea floor.

Mr. Rozum introduced the draft 2021 capital budget, with $6.7 million in proposed new projects including $500,000 for vessel design and engineering.

With seven SSA ferries more than 25 years old and six older than 30, the boat line is already behind schedule on planning new boats, Mr. Davis said.

“The construction of a vessel takes 18 to 20, months, perhaps even longer. We need to start these discussions,” he said. “These vessels are getting older every day.”