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Sunday, March 29, 1998 Published at 15:43 GMT 16:43 UK

World: Europe

Portugal celebrates opening of giant bridge
image: [ The Vasco da Gama Bridge across the River Tagus, east of Lisbon ]
The Vasco da Gama Bridge across the River Tagus, east of Lisbon

A 10-mile (17 km) bridge across the River Tagus that will enable north-south traffic to bypass the Portuguese capital Lisbon has been opened amid pomp and celebration.

The $1bn Vasco da Gama bridge, named after a celebrated Portuguese explorer, will bring traffic from Spain to the site of the Lisbon Expo 1998 World Fair, which will be open on the banks of the Tagus from May to September.

A military band played and dozens of air force jets swooped overhead as President Jorge Sampaio inspected troops before inaugurating one of the biggest road bridges in Europe.

"This bridge is a great European project of which we are truly proud," Mr Sampaio told a distinguished audience of politicians, ambassadors, bankers and engineers.

"This inauguration symbolises the spirit with which Portugal is modernising at the end of the millennium," he said.

Will ease traffic congestion

The bridge, built by the international Lusoponte consortium, will cut pollution and congestion in Lisbon as traffic travelling between the north and south of the country will more easily be able to bypass the capital.

Financed mainly by private sector and European Union cohesion funds, the project was completed slightly ahead of schedule, consortium officials said.

The builders took special steps to protect a local bird sanctuary and rehoused 300 families, who were living in slums, to much better accommodation, said Lusoponte's president Joao Morais Leitao.

Lusoponte will receive an income from a toll to be charged for the 15-minute drive across the bridge, which is expected to carry up to 130,000 vehicles per day.

The building of the Vasco da Gama bridge complements the construction of a rail link along the existing April 25 bridge, further west along the Tagus; it is expected to open early next year.

Like the Vasco da Gama bridge, the rail link should cut pollution and traffic jams in Lisbon, officials said.

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Vasco da Gama's voyages of discovery

Vasco da Gama official site (Portuguese)

The Vasco da Gama bridge

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Expo 98 World Fair taking place in Lisbon

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