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A Q&A with the new Purple Line CEO

Peter van der Waart says he wants to clear “roadblocks” from Maryland’s delayed light-rail project and speed approvals needed to get to “full construction"

Peter van der Waart is the chief executive of Purple Line Transit Partners, the consortium of companies designing and building the light-rail Purple Line. (Courtesy of Meridiam)

Peter van der Waart recently took over as the new CEO for the team of companies building Maryland’s light-rail Purple Line.

Van der Waart, 51, arrived in Maryland last month from the San Francisco Bay area, where he oversaw the Purple Line and 15 other large infrastructure projects for the French investment firm Meridiam. Meridiam has $97 million invested in the Purple Line, making it the lead equity partner in Purple Line Transit Partners, the consortium of companies building the rail line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Once construction is completed, the companies will operate and maintain the Purple Line for 30 years as part of a $5.6-billion public-private partnership.

Because Meridiam has invested more in the Purple Line than in any other project, van der Waart says, it is the company’s “most critical asset.”

Construction along the 16-mile alignment is in full swing, though work started in August 2017, nearly a year behind schedule due to an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit. Purple Line Transit Partners says it has faced additional delays in obtaining land and permit approvals from the state. The Maryland Transit Administration and concessionaire have yet to agree upon a schedule, the amount of any cost overruns, or who will pay to offset delays.

During 28 years in construction management, van der Waart has worked on a public-private high-speed rail project in his native Netherlands, the rebuilding of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and construction of the Presidio Parkway in San Francisco.

Van der Waart, who replaced Fred Craig, spoke recently from his fourth-floor office at the project’s headquarters in Riverdale. The following has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How did you go from overseeing 16 public-private partnerships for Meridiam to becoming chief executive of the Purple Line project?

Meridiam and I felt it was important that I spend more time on [the Purple Line] because of my experience in managing clients and contractors on complicated projects. We felt this was a good time to step in and manage the project more closely. It obviously isn’t a secret that we’ve suffered delays due to the lawsuit, and we wanted to do the best job possible to finish this job as well as we can. I’ve got a lot of experience building relationships between clients and contractors and developers during critical and sometimes difficult situations on projects. . . . This is a key project for us. It’s big, it’s complicated, and it didn’t start out well, right? We had an unfortunate lawsuit, and we’re all struggling to see how we can get it back on track.

So did you seek out this job, or did Meridiam come to you and say, ‘We need you to go to Maryland?’"

(Laughter) That’s a tough question. I hate to say I volunteered for it. It was a combination of being asked and volunteering for it.

What is your biggest challenge coming into the Purple Line project at this point?

What I want to accomplish is to try to eliminate any remaining roadblocks to getting to full construction. I firmly believe we need this engine buzzing on all eight cylinders, and we’re not there yet. We still need some approvals. . . . My main goal is to assess where things are still being held up and facilitate a quick resolution so all those hindrances are eliminated and we can just focus on building this job. . . . It’s been this start/stop project because we didn’t have an easement there or we didn’t have a permit there or the design wasn’t completely done or we had to change the design to work around certain hindrances. . . . Let’s see if we can expedite it. I hear too often ‘Well, it just takes six weeks to get that approval.’ Well, let’s try to figure out a way to not make that six weeks. Let’s bring the parties together . . . and let’s sit in a room and lock the door until we figure it out.

What’s your main holdup now?

We’re not held up really. I mean we’re working everywhere we can. There are still some areas where we cannot go to work and that’s mainly because of environmental permits that are not there yet.

What schedule are you working under now? Is there an agreed-upon schedule with the state yet?

No, there’s not an agreed-upon schedule. I would say that there is dialogue on a weekly basis where we run “what-if” scenarios and look at how to model the schedule, but there’s no agreement contractually on a schedule at this point.

The contract says the Purple Line will begin carrying passengers in March 2022, and the state now wants it open by Dec. 31, 2022. Purple Line Transit Partners has said it can open the line in March 2023, with some additional costs and accelerated work. Are you still saying the Purple Line can begin carrying passengers in March 2023?

Yes. We’ve still got a long way to go.

Are you already accelerating work and, if so, how?

It’s not so much acceleration. First you try to re-sequence your work so you can work around impacts that have already occurred. That’s on a monthly basis. It’s not like you hit a roadblock and then you stop. You hit a roadblock and then you schedule your way out of it. . . . We have a lot of smart people in this building that find ways around these roadblocks. . . . We’ve added shifts in certain areas like on the Bethesda [elevator] shaft. We work three shifts [there], basically around the clock. Where it makes sense to accelerate by adding resources or adding shifts or working weekends, we will.

How confident are you that the Purple Line will be able to begin carrying passengers in March 2023?

That’s when our current schedule says we can, so I have to believe in our schedule.

What have you been doing this first month?

I’ve been trying to break through some of these silos. Why does it take so many months to review something? Why can’t we get those approvals sooner? I’ll be trying to remove any remaining roadblocks. It would be a lot easier for me to answer your question about ‘When do you think you can carry passengers?’ if we knew that all the roadblocks are eliminated.

Where do you live?

Right now I still live in a hotel in College Park.

Where do you plan to live?

I don’t know yet.

I noticed your Twitter feed has a lot of soccer stuff . . .

Oh yeah, that’s my personal Twitter, by the way. . . . Yeah, I’m a soccer fan. Both my sons play soccer — one in college and one in high school.

What’s your favorite team?

I have two teams — one in Holland, my home team from where I was born. It’s called Feyenoord Rotterdam. And my favorite club in the English Premier League is Liverpool.

Anything else about you personally that people should know?

My passion is to build stuff, so I take a lot of pride in delivering this project. I think every part of it is unique, and it will leave a legacy behind for the community. I just want to do the best job I can to remove roadblocks and turn this into a win-win for all stakeholders involved.

Last question: How’s your supply of purple ties?

I don’t wear ties. But if I do, they’re typically not purple.