Since then, the private team managing the project via a public-private partnership has begun searching for a new lead construction contractor, which it expects to have onboard in September. Meanwhile, the MTA has continued overseeing 71 contracts tied to the project, such as manufacturing the light-rail vehicles and moving utility lines underground.
The Purple Line, which has received national attention as the first U.S. light-rail project to rely on private financing, is 40 percent built.
Pollack’s job? To get it done.
He spoke to The Washington Post about progress on the project and his role in moving it forward. Here is an edited transcript of the interview.
The Post: When will people get to ride the Purple Line? It was originally scheduled to open in March 2022. Then, the previous construction contractor said it would be open in November 2024. If you tack on a year to replace the lead contractor, are we looking at late 2025?
Pollack: I wish I had a good answer for that. It’s still too early to tell. The proposers are going to bid with a schedule, so we will not only understand the cost to complete it, but the schedule to complete it. Really, at this point, it’s premature for me to speculate.
The Post: How long do you expect it will take from the time the new construction contract is signed until machines rev up?
Pollack: The selected contractor will have three major tasks. They’ll have to get their management and administration team on the ground and working. There may be people coming into town. Next, they’ll need to get a large field crew established. Then, they’re going to have to mobilize a lot of heavy machinery on the site. I envision it taking a couple months, at least.
The Post: Is the plan still to open the Purple Line in two phases, starting in Prince George’s County?
Pollack: That could definitely change with the new contract. I think that [phased opening] was trying to accommodate the construction as it was proceeding at that time. We’re looking for our new contractor to come in with their own schedule.
The Post: You grew up in Montgomery County. How does that inform your approach to the Purple Line?
Pollack: The idea of working in Maryland has really been something that I’ve wanted for a long time. This is the first time I’ve been able to be in Maryland when they’re doing a major transit project, so it’s really exciting to see the neighborhoods as I walk around both Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. . . . You feel a sense of belonging to the work you’re doing. I’ve worked on jobs in a lot of places, and it’s always been helping another place get a transit project, not my own home, so [getting the job] was a great thing for me.
The Post: Why did you want this job?
Pollack: I’m a public transit fan or rail nut, or whatever you’d want to call me. I’ve been working on public transit projects since I started in engineering consulting. I like to keep up with what’s going on with major projects across the country, so even though I wasn’t working on the Purple Line, I was certainly aware of its progress and emerging conditions because of the media coverage. [The Maryland Department of Transportation’s] description of what they were looking for in an executive director was one of the most comfortable job descriptions I think I’ve seen in terms of thinking, “Oh, I know that. I know that. I can do that.” It was a very nice fit for my experience. I felt comfortable that I understood what they were looking for. . . . [Maryland Transportation Secretary Gregory Slater and Maryland Transit Administrator Kevin Quinn] were amazingly supportive of the project. There was no doubt or question in their minds that this project was moving forward. That confidence was really nice and made me even more excited about the job.
The Post: Why did you want to oversee a transit project that was over budget and behind schedule?
Pollack: Part of it is I’ve worked on enough projects that I know there’s no such thing as a perfect project. What might seem like a dire situation to the public is really just a project that needs a different way forward. I kind of think of myself as old enough now that maybe I can start applying these lessons for others. I felt that the project needed people who were comfortable stepping into this situation and making a difference.
The Post: Some critics say the Purple Line is an example of what can go wrong on a big transit public-private partnership, or P3. Is that fair?
Pollack: I guess it wouldn’t surprise you if I told you I had the opposite view. What we’ve proven is that the P3 model works. The only way to find out if something works is to have things go wrong and have the project continue. It was because we had this P3 agreement in place and a concessionaire that we were able to take control of all the existing subcontracts and keep [some] moving. It’s also the reason we were able to keep our concessionaire and have them solicit a new design-build contractor. If it wasn’t a P3 model and our contractor walked off the job, we wouldn’t have had this recourse to keep the project moving.
The Post: How do you restart a major construction project that has been mostly dormant for a year? Will they have to redo any of the work?
Pollack: We don’t expect there to be any work that needs to be redone. Metal will start to get a little bit of rust, so if you have a bridge that’s half-built like on Talbot Avenue [in Silver Spring], you don’t just go in and start attaching the rest of the bridge to it. You have to prepare the bridge, but it’s well understood how you do that.
The Post: The two issues that caused the biggest delays before were the design of a crash wall along CSX tracks and the Maryland Department of the Environment not issuing some required permits. What is the status of those two issues?
Pollack: On the CSX side, we have the crash wall designed and ready to be built, so we don’t really consider that an issue. We’ve been working this whole time to continue to obtain the [environmental] permits. We are taking responsibility for the permits being pursued. We’re hoping to have all the permits in place before the next design-builder steps on the ground. That risk has transferred over to the state.
The Post: What else should people know about the Purple Line?
Pollack: We appreciate their ongoing support. We continue to reach out to the community, whether it’s the public or the business community. Certainly there are concerns out there, but there’s never been a lack of support. That really means a lot to those of us working on the project.