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. At WVFC, though, we knew there had to be something special about a 53-year-old woman who just adds such a gig to her then-current job running the Long Island Rail Road. We dispatched our correspondent Diane Vacca, who asked Williams about public transportation, women with power, work-family balance and how it feels to be the Top Urban Multi-Tasker. — Ed.

The 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?

A ticket from the LIRR's very first week.

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.

My 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. I talked to them about it; I told them what was happening, and they’ve been very supportive. My boys are 21 and 19. One is at Columbia; one is at Fordham. My daughter, who’ll be 16 this summer, will be a junior in high school. They all know that I have a little less time and maybe sometimes a little less energy than I used to.

They’ve been pitching in. They’ve just been great, my kids. And my husband is great. He has an office in the village we live in. He’s an attorney. He is home first; he’s always pitching in as well. My daughter will ask for rides, she’ll ask her father, her brothers. She’s at that age when they need a lot of chauffeuring.

All three of your kids were born while you were running Long Island Bus Company.

The wonderful thing about the Long Island Bus operation — it was 15 minutes from my home. When I worked in Nassau County as a deputy county executive, it was six minutes from my home. When other women ask me, “How do I do work, family, career?” I always say, make sure you try to minimize the stress points, and if you can live close to where you work, it really helps. In fact, I used to joke, with both job locations, the pediatrician was in between [work and home]. When those kids are little, you’ve got to make a beeline to that pediatrician sometimes. You go to the doctor, and then go back to work. It couldn’t work out better.

So you minimize stress points — part of that is living close to work. What other advice would you give?

Always talk to your spouse and make sure that you have mutual goals identified. We did. And my husband knew it was very important to me. He’s very supportive of me working. And both partners in the marriage have to really pitch in — especially we have to, with three kids.

What do you do for fun or relaxation — or do you have time for either?

Well, lately I have been more challenged on the fun and relaxation. Since I began the interim assignment as both the executive director/CEO of the MTA while retaining the Long Island Rail Road presidency, I’ve had a little less free time. The good news is that I have an office in Jamaica, and I can stop in Jamaica either on my way in to the MTA or on my way out of the MTA. From a travel perspective, it’s been good. I will say that when I do have free time, I very much enjoy spending it with my family. We like sailing, and my daughter likes shopping. As you probably can imagine, those 16-year-olds can shop all the time.

All my family’s been great, especially since this interim appointment took place. Everybody’s pitching in a little bit more at home. The boys do their laundry in college, so now when they’re home, they do their laundry at home, too.

You’re lucky, because I know kids who come home and dump a huge pile of laundry in front of the washing machine.

They’ll do whatever is easiest for them, but they realize, look, Mom isn’t going to be there to do that. Laundry. They’ve taken it up, and they do it themselves, and it’s great. The basic household stuff that’s gotta get done — everybody’s been just terrific, pitching in.

Are your sons living at home?

During the school year, they live on campus. The one thing I have to say, Diane, is that Columbia and Fordham campuses are close enough to where we live in Garden City that sometimes they’ll pop in. They’ll call me up, and they’ll say, “Are you cooking for Sunday?” And I’ll say, “Absolutely,” and they’ll pop in for dinner. So while they’re away at college — and there are a lot of advantages to having them be away at college — it’s also nice because they’re close enough to get home. I have to say that one of the things I do enjoy doing is, I like to cook.

And you have time for that?

I use Sunday as my one day of getting a nice opportunity just to enjoy the kitchen.

Is there anything in particular you like to cook, any specialty you have?

I’m always experimenting with my Italian dishes. My marinara sauce, my penne alla vodka sauce — all my different variations. I have to laugh. My sons, sometimes they’re like good, old-fashioned, “Where’s the roast beef?”

What about your daughter?

You know how it is with teenage girls. She likes to shop with her friends, but if there’s a certain special item, she’s looking for me to be with her. She may have scoped it out in advance. She’ll say to me, “Okay, can you run over with me?” I’ll be in the store, and she’ll make a beeline right for what she’s already picked out. She’ll try it on, and we enjoy it. It’s fun. They love clothes at that age.

You’re quite a role model for your daughter. Has she said anything about what she would like to do eventually? Or is she not up to that yet?

She’s not really up to that, but it is funny you’d use that phrase, because she is used to me being in the news. I worked as a deputy county executive for the county executive of Nassau County, and I would be in the news every now and then. She was in eighth grade, and she came home one day, and she used that phrase. She said, “You know, Mom, you’re a pretty good role model.” And I said, “What makes you think that?” She said, “We were talking about role models in social studies class, and I thought of you.” And I thought that was very nice.

How do you fit in time to, for example, go shopping with your daughter?

One thing I’ve just always been good at, because I’ve been a working mother, is scheduling in advance. I’ll say, “This looks good for me. How does that look for you?” We usually do very well if we have a plan. Can’t be spontaneous.

You’ve accomplished a lot. What’s the best part of being your age?

I’m at a wonderful stage in both my career and in my home life. At 53, the ground is pretty well settled at home, the kids are just on a great path — they’re happy, young adults. And that couldn’t be more rewarding and better. And I’m at a stage where my career is just wonderful. I can’t be more excited about the opportunity to be running the MTA as the CEO and the Long Island Rail Road as the president.

A snapshot of Williams' domain

What do you know now that you didn’t know when you were 35?

[Laughing] What do I know now that I didn’t know when I was 35? When you’re young, you can just keep adding things and saying yes, we can do this, and we can do this, and we can do this. I think as you get a little older, you recognize that you have to be more careful in saying, yes, we can get this done, because you really are working in a timeframe that you say to yourself, I want to get this done. And I enjoy very much that part of government — when you start something, and you complete something.

What do you need to complete most in your current job?

We move 8 million people a day; we’re an organization with 70,000 employees. We’re going to keep this system moving, and we’re going to keep doing the job we have to do, safely transporting those people every day. My goal is to insure that the customer gets the best value from the system they can.

We have a report that we’re planning in September, for community and legislative input and context. Interestingly enough, we’re always getting letters: Could we do this, could we do that, would we clean up this, could we have more service here. Each one of the MTA’s operating authorities, bridges and tunnels get all kinds of requests about how to move traffic on bridges.

And what do you value most in life?

What I value most, of course, is my family. You love career, but it’s really about family, and it’s about enjoying your own family. I have a terrific husband and great kids. We enjoy spending time together very much.

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  • vox July 13, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    In addition to asking Helena Williams job related questions, I’m glad you asked how she juggles motherhood + wifehood along with a demanding position(s). I think it’s important for women to see that it can be done, without remorse – with some careful planning! Of course it helps that she loves spending time with her family.

  • Getting to know Helena Williams :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog July 10, 2009 at 2:42 pm

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