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New MTS Chief Sharon Cooney: Safety ‘Underlies Everything We Do’

MTS CEO Sharon Cooney stands in front of a trolley car, July 31, 2020.

Photo by Andrew Bowen

Above: MTS CEO Sharon Cooney stands in front of a trolley car, July 31, 2020.

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The Metropolitan Transit System got a new CEO, Sharon Cooney, after the sudden death of her predecessor in May. She spoke with KPBS about her priorities as she navigates the COVID-19 pandemic and tackles several new projects to improve public transit in San Diego.

Aired: August 3, 2020 | Transcript

San Diego's Metropolitan Transit System lost its CEO, Paul Jablonski, in May after he suffered a sudden heart attack. Within days the agency's board of directors unanimously appointed Sharon Cooney to replace him.

Cooney has worked at MTS for 15 years, most recently serving as deputy CEO, and she is the first woman to lead the agency. KPBS spoke with her about her priorities as she leads MTS through the COVID-19 pandemic and tackles new projects and initiatives to improve transit service.

Reported by Andrew Bowen , Video by Andi Dukleth

Q: You took the helm at MTS in a time of real crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has hurt your ridership. It's hurt your finances. What are your priorities as you try to navigate this really difficult time?

A: It's been a challenge. But you know it's been great being part of such a great team at MTS. We get through it together. I think my highest priority is to continue with the excellent level of service that we've provided pre-COVID, to make sure that we continue to be the best transit agency, to continue to reach all of the goals for things like ridership as people come back to work, make sure that we have a really great on-time performance. All of the things that matter to people when they're choosing transit for their commute and their daily lives — that's my highest priority.

And we have some really exciting projects coming up this year. Over the next 24 months, we're going to be finishing up with the Mid-Coast Trolley opening in November of 2021. That's really exciting. And we're really doing everything already, buying the vehicles and training up staff so that we'll be ready to open when it's handed to us. We also are working on our new fare collection system, which is really a great opportunity for us to add amenities for our customers and to really come into a more modern … fare collection system.

We have a new Iris Rapid (bus line) that's going to be opening up, also, in about 18 months. It's actually exciting because it's going to be in the South Bay. It'll be our first all-electric vehicle (bus rapid transit line). So that's really an exciting improvement, kind of jump starting the rollout into 100% zero-emission bus.

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Q: What are the biggest barriers to recovery for MTS?

A: I think the big challenge is making sure that our customers and our employees are safe. That's a high priority as well. It underlies everything we do. We want to make sure that, for instance, if somebody has to now start going in to work as the economy opens up, they choose transit because they know we are a safe alternative to an automobile. We've been doing everything from using foggers that immediately disinfect the vehicles to making sure we have germ barriers to protect our drivers on the buses. We're putting those in as we speak and we'll have the fleet done by the end of August.

We are making sure that everybody's wearing a mask. If you're going to choose transit, you're going to wear a mask. And if you don't have one, we'll provide one for you to use as well. So that's ... the biggest challenge, is making sure people feel and understand how we're keeping the system sanitized and safe.

Q: MTS partnered with the city of San Diego for a bus-only lane on El Cajon Boulevard. What have the results of that project been, and where would you like that expanded in the city?

A: Pre-COVID we were seeing some on-time performance assistance there. Obviously traffic has been lighter since people aren't going to work as much, and so it's harder to see how much that does for us. But you know I think what it has done is it's allowed people to realize that this is something that you could repeat in other parts of our jurisdiction, that other parts of the transit network could benefit from the faster, more reliable scheduling of the bus routes. So we're hopeful that we will replicate this in multiple places throughout our network.

Q: MTS had for more than a year been working on a tax measure that would have been on the November ballot, ElevateSD 2020. And those plans were abandoned after the pandemic hit. Where do things stand with that, and what's the future of that proposal?

A: That was really kind of a blow. I mean, one more thing about COVID that we didn't anticipate. But ElevateSD was not just about a ballot initiative. It was about really listening to what will make transit attractive to people in San Diego County. And that was one of the best benefits that we got, was the real public participation in the process. The outreach we were doing was unprecedented. I can't remember any other public project that had that much public participation and outreach. And so that's something that we're going to build on as we move forward, as we try to help San Diego County dig out of what's happening with the economic downturn, as we remain here for our essential workers during this time. We are going to use that connection and involvement to really enhance our services and really make it the best system possible when we come back to full opening of the economy.

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Q: I want to ask you about your fair enforcement policies. This has been under scrutiny recently, the Voice of San Diego has reported on a big surge in fair citations that have been issued over the past couple of years, how sometimes failing to pay a $2.50 fare can spiral into hundreds of dollars in fines and fees and things like that. What does that tell you? Does this concern you, and what will fair enforcement look like under your leadership?

A: We've already begun working with the board of directors, and through our public security committee, our chair (San Diego City Councilmember) Monica Montgomery has really helped us drive forward a couple of new policies. One of them is a diversion program that will start in September. What this will do is it allows people a chance to first — if you are approached and you don't have a fare on board the trolley, we're going to allow you to buy your fare. But then if you can't, then you can expunge the potential citation, and you have 120 days to do so. So the diversion program is intended for those who, you know, for whatever reason couldn't pay for their fare or didn't pay for their fare, but that they could avoid having to go through any kind of procedure, administrative or otherwise. This, I think, will be really helpful for those who feel like they've been somehow … harmed by the way we were doing fare enforcement.

Q: Your predecessor, Paul Jablonski, passed away really suddenly in May. And you had worked with him for many years. What did you learn from him?

A: I learned a lot about transit, obviously. I wasn't in transit before I started here at MTS. I learned a lot about the nuts and bolts. But more than that, I think I learned the value of team building and really understanding that it's not just one person, it's everybody pulling together to become the most effective, excellent transportation system that we possibly could be. So that's what I learned from him, and I'm hopeful to bring that forward in my own leadership.

Q: What do you miss about him?

A: I think it was probably his humor. He brought humor into almost every situation. We could be facing something that was, you know, technically challenging or dry or whatever, and he could make everybody laugh and get everybody enthusiastic about it. I hope I can do that, too.

Q: You're the first female CEO of MTS. What does that mean to you?

A: I really value the number of women in the organization who have come forward and thanked me for stepping up into this leadership role. If I can be a mentor, if I can bring more women into the public transportation world, I would love to be able to do that. So if my becoming CEO helps with that, then I'm excited.

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Photo of Andrew Bowen

Andrew Bowen
Metro Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover local government — a broad beat that includes housing, homelessness and infrastructure. I'm especially interested in the intersections of land use, transportation and climate change.

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