MTA chairman and chief executive Thomas Prendergast looks on as...

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

The head of the MTA Wednesday abruptly fired Long Island Rail Road president Helena Williams and named her successor in the midst of intense labor negotiations.

Williams, the first woman to run the nation's busiest commuter railroad, said that after a board meeting, she was summoned to the office of her boss, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas F. Prendergast, where he broke the news.

"I was surprised," Williams, 58, said in an interview afterward. "I am greatly disappointed. This had been my dream job."

The change in leadership came as the authority and the union leaders are working to avert a strike this summer.

Prendergast appointed Patrick A. Nowakowski as the LIRR's 39th president in the same news release that announced Williams' departure. Nowakowski, 60, executive director of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project in Washington, D.C., takes the helm May 12.

The move, Prendergast said, was not spurred by a specific incident and is not a reflection of Williams' performance during her tenure.

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

Since becoming chairman in April 2013, Prendergast has named a new president to head New York City Transit and replaced Howard Permut, former president of the Metro-North Railroad, which had been beset by a spate of safety-related incidents, including a fatal Bronx derailment in December. Federal investigators concluded the railroad put on-time performance ahead of safety.

Prendergast also wanted to replace Williams, a labor attorney by trade, with someone with a background in technical operations, which Nowakowski has. Nowakowski had served more than 27 years with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and that experience will benefit the LIRR, Prendergast said.

The issues Metro-North Railroad encountered have shown that not having an operationally experienced president to run the railroad could present problems during major incidents, Prendergast said. "It's really the issue of being able to separate the wheat from the chaff pretty quickly," Prendergast said.

News of Williams' ouster also caught others off guard, including two board members, a local lawmaker and a union representative. Her departure, they said, does not bode well for LIRR commuters.

State Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola), who is upset over Williams' firing, noted that she has been a great advocate for the LIRR's interests, which may be at odds with those for whom she works.

"I am concerned that this was done behind closed doors and under the cloak of secrecy," Martins said. "Is this more about assembling a team around Mr. Prendergast that would toe the line for the MTA?"

Kevin Law, president and chief executive of the Long Island Association, said Williams was a tireless advocate for the LIRR. "And given the fact the LIRR is in the midst of major infrastructure projects and labor negotiations, this is a bad decision, bad timing and bad for Long Island."

MTA board member Norman Brown, labor representative for Metro-North, said there was no indication at Wednesday's board meeting nor at a joint meeting Monday of the LIRR and Metro-North committees that Williams would be let go.

Brown said he learned about the firing through phone calls about 2 p.m., about three hours after the board meeting.

"This indicates a level of instability in the commuter rail system," Brown said. "One thing people look for in mass transit is stability."

Williams, who has no immediate employment plans, looked back on her tenure with pride. Under her leadership, she oversaw major capital improvements projects and helped improve the railroad's customer communications, including the introduction of the Train Time app.

She wishes she could be around to see the completion of the double track project, the construction of a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma, which will increase capacity and improve reliability, she said.

For all she has accomplished, perhaps Williams' most enduring legacy may be paving a path for other women who want to run a commuter railroad.

"I will always be proud of my place in history as the first woman to run the largest commuter railroad in North America," she said.

With Darran Simon

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