Brazil: The World Cup Bus to Nowhere

Source: The Americas Blog

The Rio de Janeiro city government inaugurated the most expensive public work project officially connected to the World Cup last week.  Although construction of some of the stations is expected to continue throughout the next few months, a new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor called the Transcarioca now connects Galeão International Airport to the wealthy beachside neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca, 39 kilometers away, without going anywhere near the city’s downtown, Maracanã soccer stadium or the tourist hotel neighborhoods on the city’s south side. The final cost of the project is estimated at R$2.2 billion (approximately US$970 million). Photos and videos of shoddy workmanship have cropped up on the Internet, and according to O Dia, a local newspaper, the inaugural voyage had only one paying passenger.

Despite spending around R$4 billion preparing for the World Cup, Rio de Janeiro, with a metropolitan area of over 12 million people, remains one of the world’s largest cities with no direct public transportation link between its international airport and downtown. Officially billed as a means by which World Cup tourists will move around the city during the games, the only apparent use of the Transcarioca will be to connect tourists to nearby metro or train lines which could have just as easily been connected to the airport if it weren’t for what author and geographer Chris Gaffney calls the “mafiaesque” influence that the city’s 49 private bus companies have on the city’s transportation policy.

The Brazilian government estimates that it has allocated R$25.8 billion on the World Cup, divided roughly in thirds between stadium construction and reformation; airport and infrastructure improvement; and public transportation projects. Although there is a large public outcry from across the political spectrum over the amount of money spent, especially on stadiums, some of the comparisons made with things like health and education have been blown out of proportion.  Even Folha de São Paulo newspaper, a traditional enemy of the ruling PT party, admitted recently that: 1) the total amount spent on the World Cup over the course of seven years is equivalent to around one month’s spending on public education; 2) most of this money was leant by the BNDES (the Brazilian National Economic and Social Development Bank); and 3) a large proportion of the money leant went to the private sector, as in the case of stadium construction and reformation in cities like São Paulo and Curitiba, and will be paid back with interest.

The huge World Cup protests that were predicted by many northern media outlets earlier this year have not happened.  Labor unions, left activists and squatter’s movements like the MTST have held a series of small and well organized protests, however, linking complaints about the Cup to issues such as labor rights, housing and public transportation. In one such protest a group of 4,000 people shut down nine bridges in São Paulo during rush hour, bringing the entire city to a halt. The ease with which small groups of protesters can shut down traffic in a major city like São Paulo highlights some of the key problems in Brazilian cities that will continue long after the World Cup ends this July: too many cars on the road; underinvestment in the train and metro systems; and, in instances when money is invested in mass transportation such as in the case of the Transcarioca, prioritization of publicly-subsidized private bus systems that don’t serve the needs of the working population.

Brian Mier is a geographer and freelance journalist who lives in Brazil and works as a policy analyst at the Centro de Direitos Econômicos e Sociais.