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France opens world's tallest bridge

Piercing the sky above the verdant hills of southern France, a roadway bridge hailed as the tallest in the world was officially inaugurated Tuesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Piercing the sky above the verdant hills of southern France, a roadway bridge hailed as the tallest in the world was officially inaugurated Tuesday.

Celebrated as a work of art and an object of French national pride, the Millau bridge will enable motorists to take a drive through the sky — 891 feet above the Tarn River valley for 1.6-mile stretch through France’s Massif Central mountains.

Designed by British architect Norman Foster, the steel-and-concrete bridge with its streamlined diagonal suspension cables rests on seven pillars — the tallest measuring 1,122 feet, making it 53 feet taller than the Eiffel Tower.

The bridge, which has an airy and fluid appearance, was designed to have the “delicacy of a butterfly,” Foster said in an interview with regional daily newspaper Midi Libre.

“A work of man must fuse with nature. The pillars had to look almost organic, like they had grown from the earth,” said Foster, who also designed London’s Millennium Bridge.

Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge, towering 1,053 feet above the Arkansas River, is the world’s tallest suspension bridge — but it is designed for pedestrians. The Kochertal viaduct in Germany was the highest roadway, at 607 feet, officials said.

'Exceptional opening'
President Jacques Chirac, surrounded by workers in hard hats, lifted a French flag covering a plaque on the bridge in the town of Millau on Tuesday. Fighter jets roared overhead, leaving a trail of red, white and blue smoke.

“This exceptional opening will go down in industrial and technological history,” Chirac said, praising the bridge’s designers and builders for creating “a prodigy of art and architecture — a new emblem of French civil engineering.”

The bridge will serve as a symbol of “a modern and conquering France,” he said.

Millau, whose skyline is dominated by the bridge, had until now been best-known outside France as the place where anti-globalization crusader Jose Bove dismantled a McDonald’s restaurant.

The bridge, nearly three years in construction, opens to vehicles on Thursday.

Link to the Riviera
The $523 million bridge was commissioned to open a new north-south link between Paris and the Mediterranean and is expected to relieve bottlenecks caused by trucks and tourists headed to the Riviera.

Images of the bridge, which dominates the surrounding Rhone Valley countryside for miles, have appeared in national media for days. Aerial photos published in Le Monde’s Tuesday edition show the bridge rising above the clouds, and the newspaper’s editorial declares it “a work of art.”

Some 28,000 vehicles a day are expected to cross the bridge in the summer months, and about 10,000 a day the rest of the year, according to France’s Eiffage construction company, which built it.

Toll fees for motorists will vary from $6.50 in winter and $8.62 in summer. Trucks will have to pay $32.24 year-round.