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In under the wire Lisbon's impressive Vasco da Gama bridge is due to open on Sunday.

On Sunday Portuguese president Jorge Sampaio is scheduled to open the second Tagus crossing in Lisbon two days ahead of its planned completion date.

Traffic will flow over the Vasco da Gama bridge the same afternoon, paying a return toll of Escudos 320 (£1.20), and the crossing will start earning revenue for the pan-European private sector consortium which has invested £800M in its construction (NCE 20 March 1997).

Completion date has been more critical on this job than on just about any other construction project. The scheme had to finish within three months of 31 March 1998 or the whole concession would be void.

The date has been so vital because Vasco da Gama is an important transport link to the Expo exhibition which opens in June.

The consortium which won the 33 year concession from the Portuguese government was led by the UK's Kvrner and Campenon Bernard of France. Six Portuguese companies took smaller stakes.

Lusoponte was set up by the consortium to act as client and operator of the bridge. Another company, Novaponte, acted as contractor. Kvrner and Campenon Bernard each have a 24.8% stake in Lusoponte and 23% stake in Novaponte.

Lusoponte agreed to build, maintain and operate the new crossing and maintain the existing 25 April bridge for the 33 year concession period.

Toll revenues from both crossings will pay back a 20 year bank loan of £214.5M and provide a dividend to shareholders who contributed £18.5M of equity. A European Cohesion Fund loan of £223M is the final piece in the funding jigsaw.

Lusoponte is confident its target of 2.25bn vehicles crossing the bridges will be hit. The Vasca da Gama bridge is a key part of a fast route round Lisbon to the Algarve.

Twelve kilometres of the crossing is over tidal water. In three years the contractors built an 800m span cable stayed bridge, two 120m span secondary navigation channel glued segmental bridges and 10km of viaduct. Construction cost was £550M.

A fatal accident in April 1996 on Campenon Bernard's 620m long cable stayed Expo viaduct section, when moveable falsework collapsed, left six people dead and nine seriously injured (NCE 17 April 1997). Work was stopped on the cable stay for two months.

Heavy rain dogged the project throughout, causing delays at the start three years ago, and again this winter.

The concessionaire also had to take a big risk on land purchase and meet strict EC imposed environmental targets.

Despite everything the biggest private sector funded infrastructure scheme in Europe has come in on budget, on time and should make a dramatic improvement to traffic flows through the Portuguese capital.

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