The Long Island Rail Road's new president promises to keep a sharp eye on the quality of LIRR service to Manhattan -- both existing and planned -- and wants to quickly build a "comfort level" with commuters.
Patrick Nowakowski, a veteran of public transit projects in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., was appointed last week by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Nowakowski, 60, said he intends to get plugged into the troubled East Side Access Project linking the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal.
"We're going to have to work very closely with East Side Access to make sure Long Island receives the benefit that project was intended to create," he said in a Friday interview. That long-delayed $11 billion MTA project, he said, will have "a huge impact on the future operations of the Long Island Rail Road."
Nowakowski, who worked in mass transit for four decades as an engineer and manager, forged a reputation as a fixer when problems with operations and construction arose, according to ex-employers.
When he starts running the LIRR on May 12, he'll have to immediately address widespread concerns. Elected officials and business leaders have criticized the MTA for firing his predecessor, Helena Williams. They fear the LIRR is losing sway over crucial decisions to its parent agency, such as preserving the railroad's slots at Pennsylvania Station.
East Side Access will also link Metro-North Railroad to Penn for the first time, and officials worry that may squeeze out some LIRR trains. Years behind schedule and billions over budget, the new links are now slated for completion in 2023.
Once Island commuters can choose between Penn or Grand Central, new train schedules must be devised -- a major endeavor. Nowakowski said that will require analyzing commuting patterns to see where riders hop on and off the railroad -- and where they go in Manhattan after leaving Penn.
In the meantime, he plans to devote a lot of time to learning about local needs.
"One of my early efforts is going to be to really get out and talk to the different elected officials . . . and try to get a feel for the issues on the Island," he said. He also intends to meet with business and community leaders, and ride the LIRR to work in Jamaica every day from the temporary home he and his wife, a schoolteacher, rent in Garden City. They have two grown daughters.
"I need their input," he said of all stakeholders. ". . . A very strong goal of mine is to get out there and understand the issues, and make sure they have a comfort level with me."
Nowakowski, who will be paid $285,000 a year, calls himself a "true believer" in mass transit and said ensuring the safety of crews and passengers will always be atop his list.
"Safety is Priority One," he said. "That never varies and never will."
Nowakowski spent the past five years overseeing construction of one of the country's most ambitious transit projects: a $5.7 billion, 23-mile rail link between the nation's capital and Washington Dulles International Airport.
He had previously served more than 27 years with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, rising from senior civil engineer to assistant general manager of operations.
During Nowakowski's tenure there, the transit system was generally considered to be antiquated and cash-starved.
"SEPTA trains were late more than twice as often as even the worst of its peers," said a 2005 report by the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers. Still, the report noted: "There are not enough hours in the day for top management to solve all of SEPTA's problems."
Officials say the authority has improved since that report. "SEPTA has a positive public image today," spokeswoman Jerria Williams said.
Pat Deon, who has chaired SEPTA for 15 years, credited Nowakowski for helping fix deep flaws in safety and maintenance programs. "I would take him back in a heartbeat," Deon said. "Transit is mostly about solving problems, and Pat was very good at it."
Nowakowski also hammered out a labor settlement in 2004 and was "intimately involved" in negotiating an end to a weeklong strike in 2005, SEPTA said.
Nowakowski said setting priorities was crucial because SEPTA was so underfunded. "No matter how good a job you do in maintaining, you need to be able to replace [equipment]."
Nowakowski said Friday that he strove to mend relations immediately after contract fights.
"The most important thing is, after a strike you can't let a strike tear the organization apart," he said. "You need to get back into the business of maintaining good working relationships with the workforce."
That experience could prove useful. Long Island elected officials and business leaders have also criticized the MTA for firing Williams about two months before a possible strike.
The MTA is at an impasse in contract talks with LIRR unions.Nowakowski is leaving the controversial Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project a few months before the first phase is due to be completed.
Project board members and stakeholders warred over designs and labor agreements for years. In February, the general contractor was found not to have fulfilled seven out of 12 requirements for the "substantial completion" test.
"It was sort of a circus, . . . but that was not because of Pat," said J. Kenneth Kinge of JKK Associates, a former project consultant.
Moody's Investors Service last month, in a rating for upcoming project financing, cited "strong management oversight by professional management team."
Project chairman Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman, applauded Nowakowski for handling all of the challenges with finesse.
"I would have been happy for Pat to stay on," Davis said. "He was an operations guy when they hired him, [and] he had to sit over the construction of a rail system. That was complicated."