(By Christopher Livesay) Venice, November 12 - The newest bridge to span Venice's Grand Canal has become wheelchair accessible after a five-year wait. The Bridge of the Constitution, referred to by locals as the Calatrava Bridge after Spanish 'starchitect' Santiago Calatrava, features a fully enclosed moveable pod that as of Monday runs alongside the footpath. The pod, which for years has sat idle, was inaugurated without fanfare, similar to when the bridge itself was unveiled in 2008. At the time, the bridge was opened in the dead of night after the city council canceled its official inauguration over protests from local politicians. Dogged by controversy and engineering mishaps, the bridge went over an original price tag of four million euros in the mid-1990s and eventually swelled to more than 11 million. Some estimates say that number could double due to legal disputes with the construction company. In addition, the overdue wheelchair pod cost 1.8 million euros - twice the original forecast. The Veneto region is currently suing Calatrava for 3.8 million euros in damages in a trial slated to open Wednesday. Citing "huge errors" in the design, the region's audit court subpoenaed Calatrava in August at the end of a 10-year investigation, begun as problems surfaced during the bridge's construction. The sleek arc of steel accessed by a flight of glass steps spans 94 metres from one bank to the other. Geologists blame its low articulation for bearing too much pressure on the fragile banks, forcing them to spread apart and collapse in some parts. Calatrava, who once described the work as his "most beautiful bridge" and "an act of love for Venice and for Italian civilization in general", said just prior to the bridge's unveiling that the cost overruns had "nothing to do" with him but were caused by an initial underestimation of costs. He also noted that the need for disabled access had not been raised at the planning stage. In the meantime, those with mobility problems have been able to travel free of charge on the water bus which, like the bridge, links Venice's railway station with Piazzale Roma, a car, bus and ferry terminal on the opposite side of the Grand Canal. First planned in 1996, the bridge was installed two years late amid fears that the canal banks wouldn't be able to hold it up properly. At one point the mayor had to dismiss fears that the bridge might be shaky after a local newspaper quoted project chief Roberto Casarin as saying it had moved "about a centimetre" in a load-bearing trial. Other alterations to the original plan included the decision to add stairs, in order to make the structure more visible to tourists, and to use two kinds of stone instead of one. In one memorable mishap, engineers had to rethink a critical stage of construction when pieces of the bridge proved too large to pass by barge beneath the Rialto Bridge, causing a logjam. The bridge is the fourth over the lagoon city's Grand Canal and the city's first new bridge in 70 years. The wheelchair pod is operative seven days a week, from 8:00am to 10:00pm, and is available to anyone with mobility problems including the elderly, pregnant women, and families with small children.
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