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The Ponte Vasco da Gama Lisbon is a massive 17km long bridge that spans the shallow but wide Tagus Estuary to the east of Lisbon. This massive bridge was once Europe longest bridge and was named after Portugal’s great explorer Vasco da Gama. The Ponte Vasco da Gama is certainly not as charismatic as the Lisbon’s other bridge the golden arched Ponte 25 de Abril but its sheer size and ability just to stretch out into the horizon is an engineering marvel.
Lisbon has always been plagued with traffic issues and during the mid 90’s traveling south out of Lisbon had become intolerable with the 6 lane Ponte 25 de Abril simply unable to handle the volumes of commuters. Suggestions for a new bridge had been bounced around for decades but the distance to traverse, poor foundations and possibility of seismic activity had always pushed the construction costs beyond that of which the government could afford.
The Ponte Vasco da Gama in eastern Lisbon
The hosting of the world fair in 1998 (Expo 98) necessitated the second bridge and a novel way to fund the bridge was devised which would cost the Portuguese tax payers absolute nothing. The Portuguese government tended the building, maintenance and, most importantly, the collection of the road tolls to private companies, who would be able to raise the estimated 1 billion dollars to construct the bridge. A private consortium, Lusoponte, agreed to build the bridge but hold exclusive control of toll collection for both of Lisbon’s bridges for 40 years.
With the funding organised the bridge was constructed in an unbelievable short time period of only 18 months, which coincided with the opening of Expo 98. The 17km length of the bridge was divided into 4 sections with each section being built by different private engineering companies that were over seen by Lusoponte. At the height of construction over 3,000 people were employed, this combined with the 2,500 who worked on the expo site resulted in the largest construction project in Portugal during the 21st century.
Lisbon lies within a possible seismic activity region and the Ponte Vasco da Gama had to withstand a major earthquake. The foundations of the Vasco da Gama viaducts extend down 95 meters into the bed rock while the pillars were reinforced to support winds of 155mph (250km/h). The architects of the Ponte Vasco da Gama were quoted stating that the bridge would withstand an earthquake 4 times of that of the 1755 earthquake.
The final bridge was expensive, strong and very long. The Ponte Vasco da Gama’s official length was 10.7 mile (17.2 km) and at the time of the inauguration on the 29th March 1998 it was the longest bridge in the world and today is still Europe’s longest bridge over an expanse of water.
On the inauguration day of the Ponte Vasco da Gama the residents of Lisbon were invited to a massive seated party which stretched the length of the bridge. The opening of the bridge coincided with the opening of Expo 98 as thousands of Spanish and European tourists traveled to Lisbon from the east of the city.
The bridge has presently 6 lanes of traffic but the original design allowed for further expansion when the capacity is required. The value presently set for enlargement is when the average number of cars exceeds 52,000 per day and is expected with the next 6 years.