Thursday, May 01, 2014

Prendergast fires Williams as LIRR president

Written by  William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
Helena Williams and NYMTA Chairman Tom Prendergast at the April 30, 2014 MTA board meeting, after which Prendergast fired her. Helena Williams and NYMTA Chairman Tom Prendergast at the April 30, 2014 MTA board meeting, after which Prendergast fired her. Newsday/Bryan Smith
Long Island Rail Road President Helena Williams is the latest casualty in a series of sweeping changes New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Thomas F. Prendergast has been making since he took office. Prendergast fired Williams, 58, following an MTA board meeting on Wednesday, April 30, 2014.

Prendergast has replaced Williams with Patrick A. Nowakowski, 60, Executive Director of the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project in Washington, D.C., effective May 12. Nowakowski’s first task at the LIRR as the railroad’s 39th president will be to oversee labor negotiations described as “intense.” The MTA and union leaders are working to avert a strike on the LIRR this summer.

The change in command at the nation’s largest regional/commuter railroad was unexpected. “I was surprised,” Williams told local news media following her dismissal. “I am greatly disappointed. This had been my dream job.”

Prendergast told local media his firing Williams was not prompted by a specific incident and is not a reflection of her performance during her tenure. “By and large, over the past seven years she’s done a good job,” he said. “This is me putting my team in place.”

Helena WilliamsPrendergast said he wanted to replace Williams, who has a background as a labor-relations attorney, with someone with a railroad operating background. Nowakowski served more than 27 years with SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority), “and that experience will benefit the LIRR,” he said. He added that the lack of an operationally experienced president could lead to major problems like the ones Metro-North encountered in 2013. “It’s really the issue of being able to separate the wheat from the chaff pretty quickly,” Prendergast, who last year ousted Metro-North President Howard Permut and also appointed his own successor at MTA New York City Transit, said.

Williams is the first woman to lead the LIRR. She said that she can look back on her tenure with pride. “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.

Photo at left of Helena Williams by Joseph M. Calisi