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Departure of LIRR's Helena Williams worries Island officials

MTA chairman and chief executive Thomas Prendergast looks

MTA chairman and chief executive Thomas Prendergast looks on as Long Island Rail Road president Helena Williams speaks after the April 2014 Metropolitan Transportation Authority board meeting on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Credit: Bryan Smith

Local officials fear the departure of Long Island Rail Road president Helena Williams may jeopardize transit-oriented and other projects that have been years in the making.

From Brookhaven to Babylon to Hicksville, officials say they don't want to see any delays or disruptions of ongoing projects, including construction of a second track from Farmingdale to Ronkonkoma.

"We went from working with a long-term partner to a complete unknown," said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. "We don't know what the new leadership is going to do."

Williams, 58, the first woman to run the nation's largest commuter railroad, was removed from her post this week by Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast, who took over the agency a year ago. Prendergast, who said he was looking for a leader with operational experience, appointed Patrick A. Nowakowski, 60, a veteran of the Washington and Philadelphia transit systems, to become the LIRR's 39th president.

Williams' last day is May 9. Her successor will assume the helm May 12.

Two days after Williams was fired, her supporters were still fuming over Prendergast's decision to replace the woman they said had been a tireless advocate for the LIRR and Long Island residents.

Williams' departure, Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) said, does not benefit his constituents or the rest of Long Island.

"We're all worse off today as a result of the decision he made," Martins said, of the MTA chairman.

The LIRR plays a crucial role in the region's future economic growth, local officials said, and they've worked long and hard with Williams over her nearly seven-year tenure to ensure that the railroad is part of the plan.

"The railroad affects local communities all over the Island," said Mitch Pally, an MTA board member. "Lots of developments involve the rail. How much of that is going to survive Helena."

In Brookhaven, discussions were underway to possibly reopen the LIRR's Center Moriches train station, which would add a stop between Shirley and Speonk, said Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine. There was also talk of maybe moving the Yaphank train station about 2 1/2 miles east to the William Floyd Parkway, to accommodate development.

"There were a lot of things under discussions. All those leave with her," Romaine said. "It does not portend well for Long Island."

Under Williams' watch, Bellone and officials in Babylon have had discussions about reopening the Republic Station in East Farmingdale to serve commuters, some of whom work along the Route 110 corridor, from Farmingdale to Huntington Station.

The developer of Heartland Town Square project, which envisioned rental apartments, retail, and office space, wanted to know how the LIRR planned to help move people who will live and work there, said Pally, who represents Suffolk on the 23-member MTA board. Williams listened to the developer's concerns.

"One of Helena's strengths is that she understood Long Island," Pally said

Bellone said he had spoken to Prendergast and got assurances that Long Island's interests will not be diminished after Williams leaves, echoing a similar sentiment expressed by Prendergast's spokesman.

"He indicated that he intends to make Long Island a priority," Bellone said..


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