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LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski still rides learning curve after year on the job

LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski sits at the LIRR

LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski sits at the LIRR corporate offices in Jamaica Station on Wednesday June 10, 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski, in his second year on the job, said he wants to lobby for billions in spending on railroad infrastructure, improve declining on-time performance and push ahead on technological innovations for riders such as mobile ticketing.

To accomplish those goals, Nowakowski said he will continue to approach his job with the eyes, and touch, of an engineer: zeroing in on a trouble spot, taking it apart and putting it back together the right way.

"I try to get things done. I'm an engineer. . . . I try to build things that last," Nowakowski, 61, said in an interview in his Jamaica office. "I'm not a person who believes in flimflam half-solutions, or any of that kind of stuff. If it's going to work, it's going to work over the long haul."

That strategy has not always yielded successful results for Nowakowski.

He stumbled when he proposed installing cup holders on trains to reduce slip-and-fall incidents -- acknowledging after building a mock-up on plywood that it may hinder more than help riders.

Nowakowski's approach may have at times alienated some, including the LIRR Commuter Council, which has raised concerns over the past year about being left out of decisions affecting customers. In a statement, council chairman Mark Epstein said his group "will always seek to speak out for the riders on both small and large issues and to present the unique perspective of daily riders to LIRR management."

"We look forward to continuing to meet and work with Mr. Nowakowski and the LIRR in improving the commuters' experience," Epstein said.

Nowakowski said that while he values input from riders' advocates, "I don't need them to tell me how to run the company."

He also has been far less visible to Long Island Rail Road riders than his predecessor Helena Williams, who held the post for seven years. While praising Nowakowski's style, MTA Board member Mitchell Pally said the LIRR president needs to do more in his second year to connect Long Island commuters and decision-makers.

"I think he needs to get out more in front of the public," said Pally, who was a close ally of Williams. "They need to see him more, so they can have confidence in the person in charge."

Belmont service overhaul

Nowakowski spearheaded a $4 million overhaul of the LIRR's Belmont service after the railroad was overwhelmed by crowds at last year's Triple Crown race; he got rid of decades-old on-time performance standards and replaced them with those he believes are more realistic; and he successfully pushed for video cameras on trains, in part to address crime and injury claims on rail cars.

Nowakowski acknowledged he's still riding the LIRR learning curve.

"It's a big railroad. There are too many areas that I don't know as well as I'd like to," Nowakowski said. "I've done my best to try to fit in and be respectful of the organization. I think the worst thing an outsider can do is come in and think, 'I know it all and you've been doing it wrong for the 180 years you've been in business.' "

Nowakowski's year was marked by personal tragedy. His wife of 37 years, Janet, died unexpectedly in March. He was back on the job less than a month later, admittedly still "in a fog," but committed to seeing through his initiatives.

"I think it shows what kind of guy he is," said Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group. "I think Pat is a professional. He's not flashy. And he is also a gentleman, and does his job well and quietly."

In his second year running the nation's largest railroad, which carried almost 86 million riders in 2014, Nowakowski has several priorities, including:

Building support for the MTA's five-year capital program, which includes $3.1 billion in funding for LIRR projects, such as completion of the project to install a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma. He's already sold the plan to many Long Island business and civic groups and other leaders, and said he'll keep doing so. If the program is scaled down in size, Nowakowski will also have to choose which projects to cut, and which to keep. "The priority has to be keeping the existing stuff in a state of good repair," he said.

Tightening up on-time performance, which fell for the third straight year in 2014 to 92 percent from 93.5 percent in 2013. Nowakowski, who recently ordered up a list of the 20 most consistently late trains, said it will require a "train-by-train" approach. "When Charlie drives a train, it's late every day. The same train, when it's operated by Tom, is always on time. Well, maybe Charlie's the problem."

Moving forward -- but not rushing -- technological innovations, including mobile ticketing. "I understand that need. . . . But at the same time -- and this is where the engineer will come out -- I believe we need to approach it the right way," Nowakowski said. "The last thing I want is a black eye. Here's this great new thing and the next thing I know I've got a thousand customer letters complaining because they got in a fight with their conductor."

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast, who picked Nowakowski to head the railroad in May 2014, said he's "very, very happy" with the job Nowakowski has done -- even when he's publicly supported expensive and politically polarizing projects, such as electrifying portions of LIRR's diesel territory or building a third track along the LIRR's Main Line in Nassau County.

"What I'm really refreshed about him on is that he doesn't go by what somebody tells him, and then assumes that position," Prendergast said. "I could tell him something. I think he files it away and keeps track of it, but he wants to make his own assessment based on his own examination of the issues."

Prendergast acknowledged that, in front of some audiences, Nowakowski may appear a little less polished than Williams -- a former deputy Nassau County executive known for carefully choosing her words when speaking in public. Nowakowski, in contrast, is not above using colorful language to describe an operational problem.

Some others have appreciated Nowakowski's blue-collar sensibilities.

"It's not all about him getting out in front of the cameras. It's about the nuts and bolts, getting the job done," said Anthony Simon, general chairman of the LIRR's largest union, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers Union, which was embroiled in a contract dispute with the MTA when Nowakowski took office.

Avoided micromanaging

Since then, Simon said Nowakowski has avoided micromanaging his labor force, "letting those men and women who are actually out there . . . do the job."

Nowakowski spent most of his 40-year transit career in the Philadelphia and Washington areas, including a stint as executive director of the project to link by rail Washington Dulles International Airport with the capital.

He said that he "never professed to be a professional politician," but has worked hard on getting to know the people and the issues that drive Long Island. To help him navigate Long Island's politics, former Chief Deputy Suffolk County Executive Edward Dumas in December was hired to be LIRR vice president for market development and public affairs.

"I do fully understand that a big part of this job is being the public face and being out there," Nowakowski said. "If there's any discomfort, it's that I originally didn't know anybody. I, obviously, know a bunch of people now."

Projects moving ahead

Jan Burman, president of the Association for a Better Long Island, another business group, said Nowakowski has earned "solid marks" for his efforts so far, including in keeping the second track project on schedule, moving ahead with plans for a new rail terminal in Ronkonkoma, and "navigating the difficult political environment" surrounding the MTA's capital plan, which is likely to remain largely unfunded nearing the end of the state's legislative session.

"How Pat will deal with that going forward will certainly test him in the weeks to come," Burman said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said when Nowakowski replaced Williams, he was "very concerned about what this meant for Long Island."

"From the outset, Pat made a commitment that he was going to be very engaged and would follow through on the projects that were happening and that he would continue to work with us on the priorities that we have in the region," Bellone said. "Of course, you never know until you actually start working together. But, what I've found is that he was more than true to his word."

Prendergast similarly endorsed Nowakowski's efforts at forging alliances in Nassau and Suffolk. He said the best example of Nowakowski's leadership could be seen in his most visible initiative to date -- resolving long-lingering infrastructure and planning problems at Belmont Park.

Nowakowski was in office less than a month when a crush of 30,000 fans at the Belmont Stakes pushed the LIRR to its limit, resulting in dangerous crowds and waits of more than three hours for trains.

"You saw, from that point going forward, somebody with a lot of operational experience and a lot of operational savvy just take the bull by the horns and say, 'This is what we need to do,' " Prendergast said.

Nowakowski started a $4 million project to revamp the dilapidated station with new platforms, stairs and ramps, and reconfigured service to allow a more steady stream of trains into and out of the station.

He defended his decision to not negotiate further for the New York Racing Association to pick up part of the project's cost.

"At some point in time, you say, 'I can't take the risk that we're going to fall on our face again next year,' " he said. "I need to do what needs to be done."

When fans packed Belmont Park to see American Pharoah race for the Triple Crown this month, the LIRR handled 30,000 exiting fans with relative ease -- clearing most of them out in an hour and a half.

Sitting on a nearly empty train car leaving the station that evening, Nowakowski said he reflected on his day, if not his year.

"It worked," he said. "I sat back there and felt like -- what do they say on the 'A-Team'? I love it when a plan comes together."


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