When Helena Williams was named president of the Long Island Rail Road in 2007, this page called it a "master stroke."
It surely was.
Yet after seven years of tirelessly and skillfully working on the railroad, Williams was fired Wednesday by Thomas F. Prendergast, who took over as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority a year ago. The new LIRR president is Patrick Nowakowski, a civil engineer by training with managerial experience in railroad operations who for the past five years was executive director of a project to connect Dulles Airport in suburban Virginia with Washington's subway system.
Hiring his own man is certainly Prendergast's right, but his explanation that he wanted to do succession planning and focus more on operational needs doesn't quite gel as a coherent reason for getting rid of Williams, especially so shabbily.
The timing, too, is peculiar. The LIRR is in the middle of tense negotiations with its unions, which are threatening to strike in July. What is the logic behind removing the person who -- if there is a strike -- has the best understanding of how to close down the LIRR, can most effectively communicate information to the public and can most competently put a bus system in its place? Williams has been the head of Long Island Bus and a deputy Nassau County executive.
Prendergast said Thursday, "There was no right time." But there are wrong times.
Perhaps Prendergast -- or the governor's office, which has sway over the independent authority -- was not comfortable with a strong and knowledgeable voice for Long Island with her own base of political support within the MTA.
We hope Prendergast doesn't intend to narrow the job of the LIRR president to just an operational one. Williams had supporters in the State Senate, which has oversight of the MTA. By firing her, Prendergast has already reduced the clout of the LIRR to get its share of funding for capital projects.
Williams should find satisfaction in the praise for her tenure. Her skill was seeing the big picture, paying attention to consumer needs and understanding transit as a key to the future of Long Island. At the top of her accomplishments was the start of construction of a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma. This project is key to the ambitious revival of Ronkonkoma's downtown, the Wyandanch Rising project and the eventual reopening of a station near Republic Airport to bring employees to jobs on Route 110.
Nowakowski will need to learn his LIRR history. Past presidents who knew all the tracks and switches but were not savvy in transactions with elected officials and governmental entities didn't last very long. Running a railroad through the downtowns of a densely populated suburb cross-hatched with multiple small governments is politically perilous. Under Williams' leadership, Long Island officials said they had a degree of confidence that the region would be treated fairly within the MTA, and that its needs would mesh with the LIRR's priorities.
Prendergast said Thursday that his pick "gets it."
Long Island has a lot riding on his pick. And Nowakowski has a tough act to follow.