SÃO PAULO, Brazil — This business hub, South America’s largest city, is usually bustling from dawn until dusk. But on a recent Wednesday morning, São Paulo ground to a halt.
Subway and train workers, disgruntled about poor wages and benefits, had gone on strike, leaving more than 4.8 million commuters without a ride. Buses still made the rounds, but these are packed on normal days. They didn’t help much, with rush-hour traffic in the maze-like city at a standstill. A usual hour-and-a-half journey across town took three hours.
But São Paulo isn’t the problem. Brazil’s population and economic growth have pushed it to the brink. Whether by road, rail or air, the country is unprepared to handle rising transport demand. Now, the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games approaching, host country Brazil’s transportation revamps are more pressing than ever.
Consider São Paulo’s Guarulhos International Airport. Both Forbes (in 2008) and CNN (in 2011) voted it one of the most hated in the world. With 41 percent of departing and 59 percent of arriving flights on time, it’s no wonder.
Guarulhos clearly has a gap to fill — or unclog.
Marcio Fortes is president of the Olympic Public Authority for the 2016 Rio Games and the government’s former minister of cities. He insists it can — and will — be done.
“We have to improve the situation with the airports. It’s not because of the World Cup or because of the Olympic Games. It’s because we needed to do it anyway,” Fortes says. “It’s just the consequence of the growth of this sector in Brazil. [The airlines] are determined nowadays to have a lot of passengers and to have them fast.”
As of 2010, the airport could move 24.9 million people per year but demand was at 26.8 million, according Fortes’ statistics. That demand is expected to climb to 38.9 million passengers by 2014, about 45 percent above the 2010 rate, he adds. But not to worry, says Fortes, the international airport will be revamped by then. With a budget of about 1.8 billion reais ($887 million), it should be able to handle some 52.7 million travelers.
Airports in Campinas, Brasilia, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte will get similar upgrades, increasing capacity sharply.
More than an airport facelift is needed, however. The streets are plagued with potholes seemingly big enough to swallow the average hatchback car. The many peaks and valleys across the country make for difficult road maintenance. Subways and trains are also in desperate need of care. Brazil must work harder, and faster, to unclog choked roads and railways, say international observers — especially those eyeing the preparations for upcoming sporting events.
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Originally published on July 11, 2012, on GlobalPost.