PORTUGUESE DICTATOR Salazar never wanted a bridge spanning the River Tejo. He thought it would be too costly. Neither did he want the bridge to bear his name, believing that such an honour should only be bestowed on a person at least 200 years after their death. Nevertheless, the bridge was to bear his name (if only until the April 25 Revolution) and was officially inaugurated on Saturday, August 6, 1966.
Salazar initially voted against the building of a bridge from the Alcântara heights to Almada, at ministerial cabinet meetings on January 13 and 14, 1959, because of the project’s expense. Indeed, the project needed a huge investment of over 58 million euros (around two billion escudos at the time).
Before the bridge’s construction, crossing the Tejo had to be by ferryboat and, during the 1960s, hundreds of cars had to wait in insufferable queues at the ferry terminals of Cacilhas and Porto Brandão, especially on Sunday nights when the waiting time was particularly long.
However, after the official inauguration of the new Ponte Salazar (Salazar Bridge), the queues waiting to cross for the first time were far longer. Portugal was in an up-beat mood since its national football team had managed to reach the semi-finals against England in the 1966 World Cup, and half of Lisbon rushed to the bridge to take the first crossing after President Américo Tomás had cut the ribbon.
The idea of building a bridge spanning the Tejo from Beato to Montijo had originally been mooted in the 1930s by minister Duarte Pacheco, but the engineer failed to convince Salazar. The intervention of World War Two (1939-1945) put the project on ice, but in 1953, with the US Marshall Plan for post-war European economic development, the idea for a bridge was included in the so-called Development Progress Plan, which made 7.6 billion escudos available.
Almost 35 per cent of the capital offered was to go directly to improving transport and communication infrastructure, with priority being given to ports, railways, roads and new ships. Spread out over six years (1953-1958), the government had to match this ‘grant’ with further monies, which would total 15 per cent of the country’s Gross National Product (GNP) spread over phases at 2.5 per cent per year, at a time when the Portuguese economy was growing at an average annual rate of 3.3 per cent.
The provision of a bridge was costed into these plans, but, as Marcelo Caetano recalled in his memoirs Memórias de Salazar, Salazar always put the brakes on the project.
In 1955, the second Development Progress Plan was already being compiled for the period 1958-1966, providing for an investment of 21 billion escudos corresponding to 33 per cent of the GNP in 1958, divided into annual five per cent phases at a time when the average growth rate was 4.2 per cent.
The construction of a bridge over the Tejo would cost, according to the budget, around two billion escudos or a 10th of the entire second Development Progress Plan. But Salazar still thought it unwise and, according to Caetano in his memoirs, they argued over the bridge project, leaving the whole idea up in the air.
Caetano was also working on plans to build a canal to link the Tejo with the Sado River, which was also shelved because of the economic cost and, under the political regime at the time, it was impossible to override the elderly and stubborn objections by the head of state. However, discussions about the bridge by the cabinet over two days on January 13 and 14, 1959 ended up by being one of the more surprising curiosities of the Salazar regime.
Salazar, along with Finance Minister Pinto Barbosa, voted against it, but lost when the vote was cast and amazingly accepted defeat, which was incredible, given the authoritarian nature of his regime. Salazar had argued that the money, which would have been invested on the bridge, would have been far better spent on other projects that were immediately economically viable and would contribute to increasing the country’s economic output.
Salazar probably gave way because he too, deep down, wanted the prestige of the bridge project across the Tejo, but, as an economist, did not want to compromise his orthodox financial spending models. Neither did he want to embark on such a costly project that would take years to pay off, just to be accused later on of having done so purely to gain popularity.
According to statesman Franco Nogueira, in his biography of Salazar, after the vote was taken, Salazar said to his cabinet: “If you go ahead with this project, you gentlemen are going to have (financial) problems.”
In the end, Salazar gave way in the interests of the State, although he continued to prove difficult in a number of aspects, even down to the eventual name that the bridge should take.
Next week: Building the bridge – a marvel in statistics.