The Herald News, Saturday, May 13, 2017 – Page A1

By Michael Holtzman

Fall River — In the fall of 2013, Carl Sawejko, president of Battleship Cove’s board of directors, remembered an initial transportation meeting attended by roughly 150 citizens from Greater Fall River.

Listening to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation describe taking down the “spaghetti ramps” and bridges to rebuild Route 79/ Davol Street to vastly upgrade access onto Interstate I-195 across the Braga Bridge from Somerset and to the downtown waterfront, someone tapped him the shoulder.

“They looked at me and said, ‘They’re absolutely crazy,’” Sawjeko recalled.

“This is not a project of fixing pot holes. This is a project of rebuilding a city,” Sawjeko, said as the last of seven speakers Friday afternoon inside a tent of 100 people attending at Heritage State Park.

It’s 3½ years later and the city’s most expensive and high-profile project in about a half-century — when the Braga Bridge was built — seems considered a success by all.

The dignitaries that included Secretary of Transportation and CEO Stephanie Pollack, Lt. Gov. Karen Polito, U.S. Rep. William Keating, state legislators and city and business officials, extolled the public completion and rededication of the $227 million Route 79/Braga Bridge Improvements Project.

State Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, serving as master of ceremonies, said this Route 79/Braga Bridge makeover “is much more than a transportation project. It’s a transformation project.”

Signs rededicated
The day’s event included the rededication of signage for both the Charles M. Braga Jr. Bridge, named for the city’s first serviceman killed at Pearl Harbor in World War II, and rededication of the Davol Street bridge viaduct connecting Center and Anawan streets, named since 1984 for Paul Romeo Pelletier, seaman second class, like Braga a Navy serviceman, also killed in World War II.

Members of the Braga family sat in the first row and were thanked many times for the sacrifice of “Charley” Braga.

Chuck Braga, joined by his wife, daughter and grandchildren, stood with his family beside dignitaries and the white and black bridge sign rededicated to the young Navy yeoman second class among the 900 killed at Pearl Harbor.

Seeing the beautified Braga, the older man said, “Every time I look at it now I remember Charley.”

MassDOT also reproduced the sign dedicated across the Davol Street bridge, connecting Anawan and Center streets and taken down during construction. It’s dedicated to young Navy serviceman Paul Romeo Pelletier, who lost his life in battle at sea.

Jim Mullins was an aide to then-Rep. Joan Menard when the Pelletier family contacted their office seeking recognition for their loved one decades after the war. Mullins wrote the legislation in 1984 to dedicate the memorial viaduct to Pelletier.

Their family could not be located, but Mullins said, “I think it’s a great day and I’m so happy we remembered the contributions of Seaman Second Class Paul Romeo Pelletier.” Both WWII servicemen were Fall River natives whose bodies were never found.

“Together we continue to build,” said Keating, who recently returned from the Pearl Harbor memorial visited by 2 million each year, he said.

“What a complex engineering job this is,” Keating marveled. With self-deprication, he said wrapping family Christmas presents is enough of a challenge for him.

“This is an example of how government can work together and get things done,” Keating added.

Pollack, representing MassDOT, the project manager, said, “One of the things the accelerated bridge project taught us is the power of a strong design-build.” That’s the approach used for Route 79/Braga whereby after reaching a design threshold it continues through construction to give more project flexibility when challenges arise.

Polito, joining others thanking the attending Braga family. She spoke generally about the project’s results and said people could think back to 1965 before the Braga Bridge existed.

“When I look back at this structure (pre-2013), I can’t help but think of all the people helping in designing and building these structures and how incredibly talented they are,” Polito said. “Coming to this area, you are so blessed to have this natural resource with your waterfront.”

Business also enthusiastic
Robert Mellion, Bristol County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said this project is “part of a half a billion dollar investment” the state has made in Fall River during the past decade.

That includes building of the Veterans Memorial Bridge connecting Fall River and Somerset further north, along with the new Route 24 interchange for the new bio-park and reinstatement of freight rail in Fall River.

An example of such investments paying off, he said, is the contrast between the rundown Regatta that had been at the edge of this project, compared with the new Cove Restaurant where Polito and other officials went to dine after the event.

Nine ‘spaghetti ramps’ replaced
This 3½-year project was substantially completed in October and well ahead of schedule.

One of five state projects under the $3 billion Accelerated Bridge Program by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the work included: removal and replacement of the Rt. 79/ Davol Street viaduct built in the 1960s and in serious disrepair; reconstruction of nine “spaghetti ramps” and seven bridges accessing Route 79/Interstate 195 with new bridges and roads to connectors on Water

Street and Milliken Boulevard; waterfront access improvements; safety improvements for pedestrians and bicyclists, including shared paths and three light signals at key intersections.

Also, work on the Braga Bridge, with single lanes closed to traffic through the fall, included structural steel repairs, cleaning and painting the half-century-old bridge and improving the structural integrity and appearance.

The total $227 million cost for the joint venture project, contracted with Barletta Heavy Division/O& G was divided $136 million for the Route 79 portion and $91 million for Braga Bridge work, MassDOT reported.

Not a nightmare
“In the beginning I thought this was going to be a nightmare,” Rodrigues said, echoing others. “We are assembling the main east-west, north-south intersection of the city.”

Laura Ferreira, the city’s traffic director, said before the ceremony began, “We just kept thinking ‘how are they going to do this? How is this going to come out?’ It’s amazing how it came out,” Ferreira said, complementing the work by Barletta and project coordination by MassDOT.

Route 79 Phase II
The second phase of Route 79/Davol Street north of this project is underway. A MassDOT evaluation committee recently interviewed three of seven firms bidding to perform the 25 percent design: CDR Maguire, Jacobs and TranSystems.

The evaluation committee “has made a final confidential recommendation, based upon the highest ranking score, which must be now approved internally at MassDOT,” spokeswoman Judith Riley said in an email this week.

“It is anticipated that the agency will make appropriate notifications within the next few weeks,” Riley said of the estimated $68 million Phase II of the project.

It continues approximately one mile northerly from the Cove Restaurant to near the Veterans Memorial Bridge. The 25 percent is estimated at $3 million, although MassDOT has not released the separate bid figures.

Fall River City Administrator Cathy Ann Viveiros spoke of the Fall River before the massive rebuilding project.

“Now when people come into Fall River they are seeing a strong, strong progressive image that captures the Fall River that we are,” Viveiros said, representing first-term Mayor Jasiel Correia II, said he wanted to change the city image.

They viewed Fall River “as an old, saddened mill town lacking opportunity.”

This project goes far toward changing that, Viveiros said. “It is a team effort. It is a team project,” she said.

Sawjeko echoed that constant theme expressed in perhaps the most exuberant terms: “This is the beginning of the new Fall River,” he said.