Chief of Staff, San Diego Metropolitan Transit System,
Born into a large family with six siblings in the Philadelphia area, Sharon Cooney learned early on in life a skill that has been key to her successful career: always observe and listen to others and figure out what motivates them.
“You’re never going to force everybody to do what you want,” she says. “Persuasion is the way to accomplish anything: build a team, find out what [peoples’] needs are, what they think is right, and then move forward.”
Aspiring to become a political science professor, Cooney studied government and history at Georgetown University. She earned her Master’s and Doctorate degrees in political science at Villanova and Boston College, respectively, and taught at Boston-area colleges.
However, she quickly learned the slow pace of academia wasn’t for her.
Soon after, she and her husband moved to the Baltimore area. Having developed an interest in public relations, she pursued event planning, working in a convention hotel for two years. She witnessed firsthand the difficulties of service industry workers who relied on public transportation to get to their jobs.
“I would take the bus home, dog tired, hoping [the bus] was on time,” she recalls.
That experience still resonates with her today as chief of staff of San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), which serves many riders working in the service industry.
“I always think about them when I am planning service changes,” she says. “They’re just trying to get to their jobs, afford their passes, and get home at a reasonable time to their families.”
When Cooney’s husband’s job moved them to San Diego in 2001, she was looking for a fast-paced atmosphere where the sky was the limit on the impact one person could have. She worked for the Office of Strategy and Intergovernmental Affairs, County of San Diego. Through that job, she met her current boss, MTS CEO Paul Jablonski, and has been working at the agency since 2005.
Being responsible for finding financing for the system, Cooney helped get California’s Proposition 1B initiative, a state funded infrastructure bonds program, passed in 2007.
“It was a hard sell at a time before state of good repair became sexy in the U.S., because people like to fund major new start extension projects,” she says. “They didn’t like spending their money on fixing broken things. We worked with legislators very closely to make sure that the money came straight to the operators and didn’t [go] into a competitive pool that we might not be able to access easily.”
As a member of a core group that is managing MTS’ $600 million trolley rehabilitation, Cooney ensures that the project takes into account the customers’ needs, redesigning transit centers to better link bus and rail.
Cobbling together the funds for the rehabilitation project from a number of sources, including Proposition 1B, at a time when funding was scarce was a big challenge, Cooney says. Once the money did come together, she adds, the task was to proceed without interrupting service.
Along with funding hurdles, the most challenging aspect of her job, Cooney says, is that there aren’t enough hours in the day, and there’s always something more to be done.
Conversely, she loves the fast-paced environment.
“It fits my character,” she says. “One of the reasons I chose to join MTS was the energetic environment.”
She also loves achieving goals, whether it’s favorable outcomes to legislation, board approval of her recommendations for service changes, or securing funds for a project that seemed impossible. The latter caters to her love of problem-solving.
Cooney is also working to complete construction, vehicle purchases and integration of several planned bus rapid transit service lines that will come online next year.
Outside of work, Cooney enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons, gardening, going to San Diego Padres games, the zoo, farmer’s markets and local restaurants.