Bryan Myers reported with Megan Thompson from Brazil on a story about roads and infrastructure.
As part of its plan to enlist private companies, the Brazilian government has leased several of its major highways to private companies, making those companies responsible for maintenance and repairs and, in return, allowing them to collect tolls. Currently, seven stretches of Brazilian highway are in private hands, and that number is expected to grow.
The tolls aren’t cheap. We took a drive on a highway that has already been privatized, the Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo highway. We paid $20 (U.S.) for the privilege of driving about 175 miles. That amounts to the daily take-home pay of the average Brazilian.
We also visited a highway that was being repaired in anticipation of being privatized — a highway running north from Rio de Janeiro to the town of Campos. A road crew was busy repaving the roadway with a soupy mixture of oil and stone, not the dense macadam Americans are accustomed to seeing on their highways. The crew’s foreman told us that once his bosses put their toll booths in place, some members of his crew probably wouldn’t be able to afford to drive the very road they were helping to fix.
The debate about turning highways over to private hands mirrors one happening in America. Here too, some state and local governments are trying to privatize roads. A recent effort by officials in Pennsylvania to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike — the first major road ever built in America — to a consortium led by banking giant Citigroup has been met with stiff resistance.
In America, at least, many believe the push to privatize flies in the face of the concept of “public works.” Last year, a poll of Pennsylvania drivers showed the majority opposed to the idea. Many of them seem to agree with Adam Smith, the man who first articulated the concept of free market capitalism, when he wrote that governments should provide some things to all its citizens — public works like roads being one of them.
Back in Brazil, we asked a contractor in charge of work on the BR 101 near the port of Sepetiba about all of this. He told us that even if the poor can’t afford to pay tolls, they would still benefit. The poor, he said, don’t even own cars, so for them, the issue of tolls was moot. However, he said they do take buses and that bus accidents are a big problem in Brazil. So, he said, anything that makes the roads safer will also help the poor.
After we finished our interview, we hopped into our car and drove off. About five miles up the road we saw a bus overturned, lying in a ditch on the side of a road. The passengers had already been evacuated and the bus didn’t appear to be heavily damaged, but it served as an eerie reminder of the contractor’s words.
– Bryan Myers