Pioneering SFMTA exec put agency on firm financial footing

Sonali Bose is a Muni rebel with a cause.

She may not wear a leather jacket and ride a motorcycle, instead opting for a bus, but Bose, the chief financial officer at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, personally boosted the agency’s finances by sheer force of will, often by wrangling The City’s politicians, they told the San Francisco Examiner.

Her financial reforms doubled SFMTA’s budget so it could run more buses and trains than ever before in The City’s history. Her SF Park program pioneered dynamic meter pricing. She created the agency’s first-ever rainy day reserve fund and secured funding for the billion-dollar Central Subway. Her financial stewardship led SFMTA to carry the highest credit rating of any public transit agency in the United States.

And now Bose is leaving.

After 12 years leading 400 employees, helming the transit agency’s finances, and managing a handful of other departments, Bose announced her retirement in November. Officials said Bose is unique — instead of just serving as a paper-pusher at SFMTA, she stepped over and above her rank to push for new laws and policies citywide to fully fund Muni.

This often led to respectful but heated conflicts with elected officials and other city staff.

In some halls of San Francisco government Bose is famous, perhaps infamous, for crossing swords with The City’s most influential fiscal hawks, from former Mayoral Chief of Staff Steve Kawa to Budget Analyst Harvey Rose. In his public remarks praising Bose last week, her own boss, SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin, said sometimes “it felt like I worked for her.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin said Bose’s penchant for speaking her mind bettered San Francisco.

“In a system of government that beats people down in to submission and makes most bureaucrats tow the line, Sonali Bose never bowed to political pressure,” he said. “Say what you want to say about Muni being on time or what, but she single-handedly got their financial house in order. She’s fiercely independent.”

That ferocity is how she got her start, she told the Examiner.

While waiting for a 5-Fulton in 2005, she was dismayed to see several pass her by. In the rain.

“I was out of my wits,” Bose told the Examiner.

Her next thought, though, was action.

“I said, I’ve gotta go in there and I’ve got to fix the system.”

She did, and she did.

Bose got rolling quickly: In 2007 she aided Supervisor Peskin in drafting an amendment to San Francisco’s charter, Proposition A, that allowed SFMTA to issue revenue bonds, bringing in needed funding for the agency. In 2010, she worked with then-Supervisor Sean Elsbernd to draft Proposition G, which eliminated the city mandate that guaranteed Muni operators be the second-highest paid drivers in the nation.

“My primary job is to bring resources to the table,” she said. She took that mission differently than most in her role have, for good reason, she said. When she first arrived, “we didn’t have enough money to buy parts. We didn’t have enough operators in the system. We didn’t have enough street inspectors. We didn’t have enough planners. We didn’t have enough anything.”

“Essentially they starved the back end to get service out on the front end,” she said, because “the backend is not sexy. You can’t cut a ribbon.”

So Bose, whose job was to be SFMTA’s chief bean-counter, instead became one of its most tenacious policy reformers. Bose’s career is an abnegation of normal.

“She went well beyond what you’d expect of a [chief financial officer],” State Senator Scott Wiener told the Examiner. “During the budget meetings she would watch our hearings on TV. You’d get a text message from her. ‘By the way someone said X, that’s completely inaccurate. Here’s some additional data.’ She wasn’t shy about expressing her point of view.”

Bose said her passion for public transport developed at an early age. Born in Calcutta, India, she has called many places home: England, Mexico, Cameroon, Ghana, and in the United States New York City, Boston, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

She relied on transit anywhere in the world she lived, Bose said.

“I learned to drive in Mexico City, so you can imagine what a bad driver I am,” she pointed out. She said her work at SFMTA reflected her genuine appreciation of public transportation; every fight, every debate, every skirmish, every spat was all for the love of Muni.

At an SFMTA Board of Directors meeting last week, Ed Reiskin, the agency’s director of transportation, sang her praises.

“Our operating budget is more than double today what it was. A lot of that is just her dogged determination and passion for work in this agency,” he told the public. “I always appreciated her lack of boundaries and unsolicited advice.”

Seated in her office last week, Bose said it paid off to be on the “edge” of the conversation.

“There’s a rebel in me,” she admitted. “When I feel passionately about something, I’m like a dog.”

Did that get her in to trouble, sometimes?

Sure, Bose said, but she has no regrets.

“I’ve been in trouble since I came here, shoot.”

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