San Diego MTS names Cooney CEO; approves FY21 budget

May 15, 2020
Cooney has been with the agency 15 years and will become the organization’s first woman CEO.

Sharon Cooney was named chief executive officer of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) following a unanimous vote by the system’s Board of Directors on May 14. She will also hold the distinction of being the first woman CEO.

MTS Board Chair and San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said Cooney had all the qualities to manage a large agency. During her 15-year career with San Diego MTS, she has served as the director of government affairs, director of planning, chief of staff and deputy CEO.

“At no time in the history of MTS has there been a clearer need for strong and reliable leadership. Sharon brings passion, institutional knowledge and a track record of success to the job. She has been performing at a high level as deputy chief executive officer and chief of staff for years. The entire board is confident that Sharon is the right person to keep MTS as one of the nation’s top transit agencies,” said Fletcher.

Cooney’s appointment follows the sudden death of Paul Jablonski, who Cooney considered a mentor.

“I am honored that the board expressed confidence in me,” said Cooney. “I think the board also understands that Mr. Jablonski assembled one of the best staffs in the entire country. I am lucky to have been mentored by one of the nation’s most respected transit leaders and to have a group of professionals that are absolutely dedicated to advancing public transit in San Diego. We are all ready to take on the challenges today and into the future.”

Those challenges include leading the transit system through the reactivation of normal service and recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cooney is no stranger to challenge, having been integral to the success of two of San Diego’s largest infrastructure projects: the $600 million Trolley Renewal Project and the $2.1 billion Mid-Coast Trolley Extension Project. She also either worked on or is working on additional regionally significant projects including the city’s first high frequency limited stop bus network, New Rapid Network; PRONTO, the agency’s $35-million next generation fare collection system set to launch in 2021; Elevate SD 2020, which is a large public outreach effort; and the Transit Optimization Plan, which aims to further align the San Diego MTS system with market demand.

In addition to appointing Cooney CEO, the board also approved the agency’s $346 million Fiscal Year 2021 budget. The spending plans to utilize $135 million of the $220 million in federal funding provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to restore service, balance the budget and provide a $1,000 essential service worker stipend for all employees.

“While we will have significant budget challenges ahead, MTS will be receiving about $220 million in CARES Act funding from the federal government, which will help us keep high service levels for our most vulnerable residents,” said Fletcher. “Over the [p]ast 15 years, MTS has put itself in a strong financial position with a healthy reserve. This will pay dividends as the economy heals.”

The approved budget plans for the return of near full-service levels in early summer with accommodations to maintain physical distancing goals as use increases. Services to closed facilities, such as college campuses and theme parks, would remain suspended.

UC San Diego Blue Line service will be restored to all-day seven-minute service by June 14 and bus routes will start most regular summer service by late June. I-15 commuter routes would increase to approximately 50 percent of regular schedule.

San Diego MTS ridership is down 70 percent overall from fall 2019. The agency does anticipate passenger revenue will improve monthly but does not see it returning to 100 percent of the FY21 baseline.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.