New interim Long Island Rail Road president Catherine Rinaldi rode the LIRR to Jamaica Station to start her new job on Monday. Rinaldi spoke to Newsday's Cecilia Dowd in an exclusive interview. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Catherine Rinaldi reported to her new job as LIRR interim president on Monday feeling "very excited and a little nervous" as she takes on the task of running the nation's two largest commuter railroads at the same time.

There's no telling how long Rinaldi, 58, will hold that role, as the head of the MTA said last week he's in no rush to appoint a permanent Long Island Rail Road president, even as some Long Island leaders express concern about having to share a president with Metro-North.

Although she officially stepped into the LIRR interim role on Saturday, Rinaldi — Metro-North’s president since 2018 — reported to her new Jamaica office for the first time Monday, determined to "show people how committed I am to having safe and reliable service here."

"Of course there’s a learning curve," said Rinaldi, moments after stepping off an LIRR train. "But I think I’m probably better positioned than anyone from the outside to be able to navigate that learning curve."

Rinaldi, a Long Island native who previously held several key roles at the LIRR, is uniquely suited to step in for the retiring Phillip Eng, with whom she worked closely on the MTA Board’s joint railroad committee, said Janno Lieber, chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Rinaldi will oversee a combined workforce of more than 13,000.

While announcing the leadership change on Feb. 10, Lieber said the plan was for Rinaldi to see through the completion of the LIRR’s two megaprojects — the $2.6 billion 10-mile Third Track project between Floral Park and Hicksville, and the $11.2 billion East Side Access effort to link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal. Both projects are scheduled for completion in December.

But Lieber said he will "not set a timeline" for appointing a successor to Eng, or even beginning the search for one.

"There’s a reason for that … I want the world to understand that Cathy Rinaldi is the president of the Long Island Rail Road, and they shouldn’t be planning for anybody else," Lieber said. "I’m not going to be undermining the president of the Long Island Rail Road as she takes on these responsibilities by saying, ‘In so much time, I’m going to be starting to look for your replacement.’ "

Lieber reiterated his confidence in Rinaldi’s ability to run both railroads, noting that the president of MTA New York City Transit historically has overseen the agency’s subway and bus divisions simultaneously.

MTA officials have said Rinaldi's compensation for running both railroads has not yet been determined. Rinaldi made $290,700 as Metro-North president last year, according to the MTA.

LIers: There are other LIRR issues

Mitchell Pally, CEO of the Long Island Builders Institute and a former MTA Board member, said having Rinaldi see through the completion of East Side Access makes sense, but noted there are other pressing transportation priorities on Long Island that require the full attention, and availability, of the LIRR’s president "as quickly as possible." They include relocating Yaphank Station closer to Brookhaven National Laboratory, and further electrification of the LIRR’s tracks in Suffolk.

"The president of the Long Island Rail Road needs to be somebody who can go to the 8 o’clock breakfast business meetings, the 9 o’clock meetings with the county executives, the 10 o’clock meetings with the labor unions … They need to show a presence," said Pally, who added that he’s worked with Rinaldi in various roles for nearly two decades. "She is a professional, a tremendous person. And I have no doubt that she will do a tremendous job in the short term. But, in the long term, the railroad needs its own president."

Asked about concerns over her ability to run both railroads, Rinaldi acknowledged "it’s a big job," but said she believes the lessons she’s learned during her four years running Metro-North — the second-biggest commuter railroad in the United States behind the LIRR — "will be carried over."

Chief among those lessons is the importance of providing riders safe and reliable service, quality communication, and clean trains, Rinaldi said. Among her key priorities will be providing an "integrated experience" between the two railroads once both are operating out of Grand Central Terminal, she said.

"I think I’ve learned the basics of good railroading from my time at Metro-North. I’ll be building on the great work that Phil has done," said Rinaldi, who lives in the village of Irvington in Westchester County and plans to split her time between Metro-North’s headquarters at Grand Central and the LIRR’s in Jamaica. "I’m going to be visible at both places. I have to be."

Rinaldi grew up in Massapequa and Huntington, and worked at the LIRR before heading Metro-North.

Former LIRR president Helena Williams, who recruited Rinaldi as the railroad’s general counsel in 2008, said Rinaldi was a key figure on several major initiatives, including helping craft a vision for a new Penn Station and navigating the controversy surrounding the unusually high rate of LIRR employees applying for and receiving federal disability retirement benefits.

"She is incredibly well-suited and qualified for this position. And it happens at a very important time, with the East Side Access opening," said Williams, referencing the plan to link the LIRR to Metro-North’s Manhattan home. "She understands the customer experience currently at Grand Central, and she understands the Long Island Rail Road customer base, because she was there."

Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, has "mixed emotions" about the arrangement.

"If there’s anybody — with the possible exception of Phil — who could run both railroads at the same time, it would be Cathy. But, that being said, she doesn’t wear a cape," Bringmann said. "Running one of those railroads is a major task. To run both the No. 1 and No. 2 largest railroads in the country, that’s a herculean task."

Bringmann said, with so many responsibilities, he doesn’t anticipate Rinaldi will introduce major new initiatives for the LIRR. She will be tasked with at least one major responsibility — figuring out the LIRR’s new East Side Access service plan.

That could entail reducing the number of LIRR trains running in and out of Penn Station. MTA officials have said they expect nearly half of Penn's commuters to travel in and out of the LIRR’s new terminal at Grand Central once it opens. The agency needs to free up capacity at Penn for a separate plan to one day run Metro-North trains through the station.

Kyle Strober, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, a business and planning group, previously has raised concerns about the potential for Metro-North’s future in Penn Station to impact LIRR commuters. In her new role, it will be up to Rinaldi to "navigate two profoundly different service areas," Strober said.

"As a Long Islander, she knows that our commuters are anything but shy about voicing their concerns about a railroad that is a crucial strategic connection to our regional economy," Strober said. "She will come to work with hands on two different throttles, and how that is managed will define her tenure."

MTA Board member Kevin Law, who is expected to soon leave the board to take a position heading Empire State Development, said that while the LIRR does "deserve its own leader," he agreed with having Rinaldi oversee the agency temporarily. Law expects Rinaldi to lean on LIRR senior vice president of operations Robert Free as her "right-hand guy."

"This arrangement would not be proper for the long term. But, for the short term, meaning for the balance of 2022, I think Janno made a smart move," Law said.

The LIRR’s top labor leader, Anthony Simon, expects a "seamless transition" from Eng to Rinaldi.

"We are confident she knows our system well enough, respects our skilled workforce and will adjust her to team to yield positive results," said Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.

What to know

Catherine Rinaldi, 58, reported to her new office as LIRR interim president for the first time Monday. Rinaldi, who has served as president of Metro-North since February 2018, was tapped to lead the LIRR both because of her familiarity with Long Island, the LIRR and with the East Side Access project.

MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said he has no timeline to replace Rinaldi, or to begin a search for her successor, despite some concerns about her ability to run the LIRR and Metro-North simultaneously.

Even while praising Rinaldi, some Long Island leaders said, in the long term, the LIRR needs a leader who is solely focused on the needs of Island commuters.

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