Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Those of us who have lived long in Rio have always suspected, based on very little evidence other than what we could deduce from our woes in getting around town, that the city and state politicians were feeding out of the hands of the local bus company owners.
As our prime example, let us consider the Rio Metro, which opened in the early 1980’s, and was supposed to have been extended to Ipanema by 1998; it didn’t even reach Copacabana until then, and took another decade to get to Ipanema.
The Metro was supposed to have serviced the ferryboat station at Praça XV, so commuters from Niteroi would have access; needless to say, that never happened.
The Metro never had any connection with Rio’s airports, nor (crucially) with any of the city bus terminals. When you arrived in Rio from out of town, or if you wanted to leave town without driving your car, you either took a taxi or, if you couldn’t afford that (and most Rio residents can’t afford that), you took a city bus.
That is insane.
Even more insane was that the city buses had no air conditioning, no pollution controls, no safety equipment, no maintenance, no training of drivers, and (crucially) no form of payment other than cash. That’s right: cold, hard cash. All buses had “cobradores” or collectors, seated near the driver, who took your money and gave you change—when they had it—before you could pass through the turnstiles.
The bus companies raked in huge amounts of cash, and never, ever, had to tell anyone at all what their income was, or what their expenses were. They were never subject to any audits, no one ever checked to see if the turnstiles had been reversed, like odometers on used cars.
No bus companies were ever fined for violations committed by their drivers, such as speeding, weaving in and out of lanes, running red lights, refusing to stop to pick up passengers, etc. When the traffic department tried to get bus companies to tell them who the drivers were, when their cameras caught them in violations, the bus companies simply stonewalled them.
But every year there was an automatic rise in the bus fares, usually more than the official inflation rate.
All this was done with the complicity of the governors, the mayors, the state assemblies and the municipal councils. The reason, of course, was that the bus companies used the huge amounts of unreported cash they had skimmed off passengers to bribe local politicians into forgetting about administrative oversight.
The politicians, honorable thieves one and all, lined their pockets and duly pretended the bus companies were doing nothing wrong, that they were upstanding citizens, that they needed the fare increases to ensure better service, that air conditioning would be installed, blah, blah, blah.
As Lava Jato has now shown, the people’s “representatives” represented only themselves and their political cronies. The hope now is that these crooks will themselves be publicly transported—preferably to a prison in Rio that is only reachable by bus.