MTA picked odd time to replace Helena Williams at LIRR

Long Island Rail Road President Helena Williams during

Long Island Rail Road President Helena Williams during the April 2014 Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Committee meeting, MTA headquarters in Manhattan, April 28, 2014. (Credit: Bryan Smith)

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority picked an odd time to replace Long Island Rail Road president Helena Williams.

For one, the LIRR could be months away from a strike.

Should that happen -- and, commuters are counting on the MTA, which handles negotiations, to come to a deal -- the authority would have benefitted from a Long Islander, Williams, dealing with angry LIRR commuters.


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Williams, who lives in Garden City, commuted to her job via the LIRR. That was an advantage for Long Islanders because she, like they, saw the railroad at its best, and worst, day after day after day.

In a news release announcing new president Patrick Nowakowski, the MTA forced readers to dig down into a news release to learn some of Williams' legacy.

Yes, she was the railroad's first woman president. But to Long Island, over almost seven years, she became much, much more.

Williams had a greater than train-track narrow, purely operational view of her job.

More than any president before her, Williams worked at breaking down barriers between the railroad and commuters the LIRR served.

She went to community meetings, and was considered an active Long Island leader. Recently, Williams attended a parking garage design competition, sponsored by the Long Island Index, which releases surveys and other information on local issues.

Sounds strange -- but many of the proposed facilities could be located near train stations.

"From the time I took the job, I always said that we had to be a railroad interested in what the commuters think they need and want," she said in an interview Wednesday.

There were times when the MTA could have found reason to fire Williams.

There was the railroad's chaotic customer response in April 2011, when a fire in a switching tower delayed trains on 10 of the railroad's 11 lines during rush hour; spotty service during some snowstorms; and an employee error that shut down power in September 2011.

But Williams survived -- through three governors and four MTA chairmen -- and pushed the railroad toward better customer service.

For instance, most train stations now have signs that show updated schedules. The LIRR now uses social media.

Williams said she did not know why she was fired. Even Thomas Prendergast, the MTA's chairman and chief executive, seemed to be grasping for reasons in an interview with Newsday reporter Alfonso Castillo.

"By and large, over the last seven years she's done a good job," Prendergast said. "This is me putting my team in place."

That's his prerogative.

Then he went on to say he believed MTA agency presidents should have a background in technical operations. Nowakowski is an engineer; Williams is not. Prendergast, 61, also said it was important to bring in new blood because "a number of us in terms of agency presidents are getting up there in years."

Williams is 58 and Nowakowski is 60.

But Williams knew how to make the railroad a part of the community -- which is where it belonged. And the MTA should dismiss any thought of going back to a time when the LIRR considered itself to be separate.