New MTA Chief Helena Williams - How Do You Move Eight Million People a Day, And Still Cook Sunday Dinner?

05/25/2011 01:35 pm ET

Very little media fanfare greeted the May appointment of Helena Williams as interim CEO of New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority, which moves millions of people a day on dozens of interlocking transit systems. But I had met Helena years ago in her capacity as president of the Long Island Rail Road, and told my fellow board members at Women's Voices for Change that there was something special about her. We're thrilled that she gave WVFC an exclusive of sorts this week; below she talks to our correspondent, Diane Vacca, about public transportation, women with power, work-family balance and how it feels to be the Top Urban Multi-Tasker.

helena-williamsThe executive picked up the phone. "How are you? Getting ready for the holiday?" It was shortly before July Fourth and we'd never met, so her ebullience was a happy surprise. Did the CEO of a company that transports 8 million people a day, with an operating budget of close to $11 billion, sense that her interviewer might be be feeling just a little bit daunted at the prospect of questioning her? At 53, Helena E. Williams has been called upon to head New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority until the governor makes a permanent appointment. In the meantime, she will continue as president of the Long Island Rail Road, the first woman to hold that post in the 175 years of the LIRR's history.

You began working at the MTA as labor counsel in 1985, became president of its Long Island Bus division in 1993, went on to become deputy county executive of Nassau County in Long Island until 2007, then returned to transit in the middle of a boom. What has been your biggest challenge during the past few years?

I am delighted to say becoming president of the Long Island Rail Road in June 2007 was a very exciting challenge, personally and professionally. I'd been in the transportation industry for a long time. This was a job that I wanted and had dreamed about. Sometimes you think those possibilities are going to elude you, and all of a sudden it came back, and it was an opportunity, and I was just delighted to be appointed.

One of the first things I wanted was an assessment of the state of the railroad -- the actual conditions, the challenges that we faced at a very operational level. We made it available on our website, and I made it available for distribution to a lot of civic groups.

You have an interim appointment with the MTA. The appointment is made by the governor, and he's up for election in 2010. He may not find someone who's willing to take a permanent appointment that may last only a year or a few months, so I guess realistically, you'll probably have the job for a year and a half at a minimum.

The appointment doesn't have a timetable set. The governor has a process, and I support whatever process he wants to follow to name a chair and CEO, which under the new legislation is a combined position.

Would you be interested in a permanent appointment?

It's up to the governor.

As someone who's in a position of responsibility and has real power, what's it like for you when you have to field disagreement and dissension? For example, the Western Hudson Yards project -- to be built on land you will lease to the Related Companies, one of the city's top developers -- is now in a process of public review. The community surrounding the property is upset that there isn't more affordable housing. You have to navigate between what one would like ideally and the financial reality.

NYCT-Corona YardMy role, both as Long Island Rail Road president and as MTA CEO, is to ensure that we are getting the transit benefits that we owe to our riders and to our system. While I personally am very in favor of affordable housing, that was not my governmental responsibility. One thing that I have learned in government is that you have to stay very focused on what is your responsibility.

With the MTA, you certainly walked into a hotbed of thorny issues. The agency has to stabilize its finances and streamline its operations, and deal with the blowback from an unpopular increase in fares, when the public is reeling from the current financial crisis. How do you go about dealing with so many problems?

I have a particular management style, and I bring it to all the jobs I'm in. I am very granular. I am very hands-on and very factual. I don't look at things from the 30,000-feet level. I look at them right up close, and then I manage from point A to point B.

Right now, one of the things that I'm very focused on is that the rescue legislation that was passed by Albany on May 7, which allowed the MTA to cut its proposed 25 percent fare increase to 10 percent, and allowed the MTA to restore all the big service cuts that had been identified. That legislation also contained provisions that improve the MTA as an open and transparent government operation.

Some of these provisions are things that I think we can fairly easily accomplish: better performance indicators available to the public, more information about our legislative and community involvement, and more access to financial data about the MTA. I am very hands-on looking at those three items, and I've set a timeline to say, Okay, I want to get this done, and I want to get it in a format that we can put on the Web so that I can show that we are meeting the obligations under the law.

You're juggling two full-time jobs. How do you do it?

I will say my family's been terrific. ...

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