Helena Williams’ keen interest in labor relations is what eventually made the current Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) Long Island Rail Road
(LIRR) president a key player in today’s transportation industry.
After graduating college, Williams earned her J.D., with a specialty in labor law, from St. John’s University School of Law. She started as a summer intern working for Mayor Ed Koch in the Office of Municipal Labor Relations. Upon graduation, she was appointed assistant general counsel before leaving to accept a job as an attorney in the private sector.
“Having an employment and labor law background in legal training helps you really approach problems with a very strong eye for what the issues are and what the response needs to be,” says Williams. “It also gives me a sense of how to move things forward.”
After her brief stint in private practice, Williams began her career at the MTA in 1986. She rose from labor counsel to chief of staff of Long Island Bus, and in 1993, Williams became president.
“I really had an understanding of how transit services are provided and the associated costs with my background in labor,” says Williams. “It was really a natural progression.”
Williams oversaw efforts to introduce environmentally friendly bus fleets, upgrade Metrocard technologies and cut costs for the organization all around.
She then became the Nassau County Deputy County Executive and served in the administration of Tom Suozzi, working on major commercial development issues in the Nassau Hub and helping to turn around the county’s nearly bankrupt finances.
Five years later, in 2007, Williams was appointed president of the LIRR. The system, which transports people in and out of New York City, serves more than 81.5 million customers per year and employs approximately 6,500 people.
During the course of her term, Williams has been recognized for improving customer communication and service, cutting costs, and commencing modernization projects that bring on-time performance and service reliability to riders. She has also overseen a reorganization of key departments as part of an MTA-wide effort to improve efficiency.
In addition to daily rail operations, Williams is currently overseeing the capital program investments needed to support the East Side Access project, a $7 billion project connecting the LIRR’s Main and Port Washington lines in Queens to a new terminal 140 feet beneath Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.
“This project is history in the making,” says Williams. “Every time I do an inspection of the Eastside Access, I feel like I’m marking history for one of the biggest public works projects that will ever exist. It will go down like the Hoover Dam as a tremendous civic achievement.”
When complete, the East Side Access plan will drastically shorten commuting time into the east side of Manhattan and give people more access to the area’s growing job market. The project will also protect the Long Island housing market.
“One of our great accomplishments is working to grow Long Island’s economy and housing opportunities,” says Williams. “We’re trying to become a walkable community where new housing and commercial opportunities are being developed closer to the stations. We’ve been creative in trying to help the Long Island community find strategies for transit-oriented development.”
A mother of three, Williams is the first female president in all 177 years of LIRR’s operation.
“Customers don’t care about gender; they just want to get where they need to go on time,” says Williams. “But women need to recognize that there’s a place in transportation for them. It’s an exciting opportunity for all women to see what they can achieve.”