A semi-annual report on the South Lake Union and First Hill Streetcar lines didn’t instill confidence in every city councilmember on the Sustainability and Transportation Committee last Thursday. Still, all approved accepting federal funds to connect the two with a Center City segment.

SDOT director Scott Kubly told the committee both lines are important, but could be better in terms of transit. The Center City Connector would connect them through a new track system running along First Avenue and Stewart Street.

SDOT believes the expanded and connected streetcar system will increase ridership by 200 percent while adding 50 percent to the operating cost, and reported as much in its grant application to the Federal Transit Authority.

The transportation committee had to decide whether to approve accepting $50 million appropriated in the FY 2017 spending bill, with another $25 million expected to come later through a multi-grant agreement.

Kubly and city transportation staffers first provided the committee with the semi-annual report on the SLU and First Hill Streetcars.

“The not-so-great side is, what we’ve seen is as South Lake Union has grown traffic congestion has gotten worse,” Kubly said, “and so streetcar reliability has suffered.”

Council Central Staff member Calvin Chow said SLU peaked at 760,000 riders per year in 2013. It was down to 622,000 in 2015. Ridership being down to 520,000 in 2016, Chow said, was likely due to route changes that increased use of Metro Route 40 and Rapid Ride C, and also construction impacts in the neighborhood. Kubly said dedicated transit lanes on Westlake are also improving reliability, and transit ridership is up in general around the SLU corridor.

SDOT staff believe, with an estimated 240,000 riders as of May 31, the streetcar will reach its projected 640,000 riders in 2017.

Kubly addressed a mechanical failure that took the First Hill Streetcar out of commission in March, as well as speed and reliability issues, but didn’t comment on ridership during the June 29 committee meeting until Councilmember Sally Bagshaw brought it up.

Ridership for the 2016 start of the First Hill Streetcar was projected to be around 1.2 million, but came in at 840,000, or under by about a third of the estimate, Bagshaw said.

“How do I talk to folks about the additional costs and the operating costs,” Bagshaw said of the streetcar system, “if we’re still a third down of our projected ridership? What’s going to change?”

Kubly said the 2016 projection assumed streetcars would run 10 minutes apart, but SDOT found increased congestion and growth in First Hill made meeting that headway goal difficult.

Signal timing improvements are planned at 14th Avenue and East Yesler Way, and at Broadway and Yesler. A business access and transit (BAT) lane is also being considered on Broadway, from Pine to Marion streets, Kubly said. That would involve taking out the median/turn lane and using it for a general-purpose lane, Kubly said.

Bagshaw said with fare box recovery — how much fares cover operating expenses — projected to go from 19 percent in 2017 to 30 percent in 2019, she said getting details right is important.

Councilmember Rob Johnson noted that Sound Transit is covering $5 million in annual operating costs through 2023.

“I’m thinking six years out,” Bagshaw said, “at the end of that 2022, there’s a big question mark in my mind about how we’re going to pay that.”

Leslie Smith, executive director for the Alliance for Pioneer Square and a One Center City Advisory Group member, said she’s been preparing businesses and property owners “block by block” along the Center City Connector alignment. Seattle Public Utilities is slated to begin work this fall to replace a water main on First Avenue that is more than 100 years old, she said.

“I can say unequivocally that I feel the best about this one, of everything that we have gone through in the last eight years,” Smith said of Center City in relation to the other transportation projects she’s seen come through Pioneer Square.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold wasn’t as optimistic last week, citing a Central Staff report in her remarks. She is concerned about the financial risks of the Center City Connector, and worries congestion issues will cause low ridership just as it has with the SLU line.

Herbold noted that King County Metro and Sound Transit have fare box recovery ratios around 30 percent — 31 and 37 percent, respectively — while the Center City Connector is being projected at more than 50 percent.

“That’s concerning to me,” she said. “That’s significantly more than what we see in fare box recovery.”

Herbold introduced an amendment to the legislation for accepting the FTA funds, which was passed unanimously. The amendment requires SDOT to provide contingency plans before this year’s city budget process, addressing what to do about the project should federal funding not come through. Herbold said the current administration — led by President Donald Trump — provides good reason to be uncertain.

“I just want to say, I’m not excited about this project,” Herbold said. “I don’t think it’s an efficient use of funds, but I’m going to go along kicking and screaming.”

Johnson pointed out that Herbold had the option of voting against accepting the funds to continue the Center City Connector. He said he’s optimistic the project will improve transit connections.

Once Center City bridges the gap between the First Hill and SLU lines, the streetcar system will reach four light rail stations, Pike Place Market, the future Madison Bus Rapid Transit route and Coleman Dock, Kubly said.

If the city doesn’t accept the federal Small Start funds, for which Seattle was one of a few municipalities to be considered, it would raise a “red flag,” Johnson said, and possibly jeopardize future federal funding requests.