Rodovias can be both paved or unpaved (but almost every major Brazilian highway is paved), and can have separated lanes to each direction or not, and can have multiple lanes or only a single lane.
As it is in the United States, Canada or most countries in Europe, most major highways have higher speed limits than normal urban roads (typically between 80 km/h and 120 km/h), although minor highways, unpaved highways and sections of major highways running inside urban areas have a low speed limit in general.
Annually, it is estimated that more than 1.2 billion people travel in the Brazilian highways (against the 120 million travelling in airlines).
Brazilian Regional highways are named YY-XXX, where YY is the abbreviation of the state where the highway is running in and XXX is a number (e.g. SP-280; where SP means that the highway is under São Paulo state administration).
Brazilian National highways are named BR-XXX. National highways connect multiple states altogether, are of major importance to the national economy and/or connect Brazil to another country. The meaning of the numbers are:
Often Brazilian highways receive names (famous people, etc), but continue to have a YY/BR-XXX name (example: Rodovia Castelo Branco is also SP-280.)
See highway system of São Paulo for numbering designation for São Paulo state roads, also used in some other states.
When Juscelino Kubitschek assumed the presidency, he created subsidies to bring multinationals like Volkswagen to Brazil and created thousand of miles of roads, linking distant regions of the country. Most of these roads follow poor standards, but they created links where there were none. The military presidents would mostly follow these same standards to expand the system. The exceptions would be the modern highways built by the São Paulo State Government.
In 1967, the first stretch of Rodovia Castelo Branco, an extremely modern six-lane highway linking the city of São Paulo to the western region of the São Paulo State, was finished, creating a standard for other highways in the same state. In the same year, the Via Dutra was modernized, allowing a fast and modern trip between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
The country would reach 200,000 km paved in 2000. Between 1995 and 2005 three majors highways (BR-101, linking Curitiba to Porto Alegre; Regis Bittencourt, linking São Paulo to Curitiba; and Fernão Dias, linking São Paulo to Belo Horizonte) were modernized. Until then, most of these highways were known for their high mortality rate.
The Southern and Southeast regions of Brazil are heavily connected by highways, most of them paved; the North region is the least connected with paved highways due to the presence of the Amazon rainforest. In this region, highways, when they are present, generally are unpaved. Manaus, for example, has no major paved highways connecting it to any other city but Boa Vista in the north.
Highways are the main means of transportation in Brazil, both in number of movement of passengers and movement of freight and goods.
The major problem of highways as the national arterial system is that it is expensive to transport freight: trains are much cheaper, generate less pollution and create no traffic problems as trucks do. As of 2003, Brazil had only 24,000 km of railways, used mainly for mineral resources transportation (mines to seaport), while trucks were responsible for almost every other means of freight transportation.
Another significant problem that Brazilian federal highways face is deterioration because of weather conditions and heavy usage. The government's investment in highway maintenance often falls short of the necessary amounts, resulting in the lack of maintenance of thousands of kilometers of federal highways, especially the minor ones. Potholes and wavy asphalt are common on several highways. Because of this difficulty, the government decided to grant parts of highways to private companies who will maintain the highway in exchange for the right to charge tolls. The problem with this partial solution is explained in the section below.
Due to the growth of the country, and the growth of vehicles crossing Brazil from North to South, the Government has started, some years ago, the duplication of main roads sections. The first one to be completed was the so called Via Dutra, the important road connecting São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, which was finished on the 1960´s. Later, another roads were built to be dual carriageways or duplicated, like the Fernão Dias, connecting Belo Horizonte to São Paulo, the Bandeirantes, connecting São Paulo to the State´s countryside, the Litoral Sul, connecting Curitiba to Florianópolis, and few others.
Nowadays, the Government and the private section are planning to duplicate thousands of kilometers, with few hundreds already on their way. For example, the first section of the Northeastern Corridor, connecting the capital city of Natal to Palmares, southern of Pernambuco State, the road connecting Goiânia to Uberlândia city, this one on the west of Minas Gerais state, the road connecting Palhoça, on Florianópolis Metro Area, to Osório, a city 90 km west from Porto Alegre, already connected by a dual, modern, six lane carriageway road, and few others.
The projects are the link between Brasília and Belo Horizonte (800 km), Belo Horizonte and Juiz de Fora (close to the Minas Gerais-Rio de Janeiro State Border), with 200 km, the Rio-Bahia Road System, between Três Rios (app. 150 km from Rio de Janeiro City, already connected to the State Capital by a dual carriageway road) and Feira de Santana (app. 200 km from Salvador, also connected by a dual carriageway road), and the important connection between Palmares and Salvador.
It is important to say that the majority of these roads are going to be or already are tolled roads maintaned by the private section (like the link between Florianópolis and Belo Horizonte, or the link between Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, or even the link between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo), however, some roads, like the link between Salvador and Natal, which will be more than a 1000 km long of a full dual carriageway system, will not, by the next few years, be tolled, and will link, more likely by 2014, 70% of all the economy and the population of the Northeast Region.
In the 1990s, many state governments decided to privatize public-controlled paved highways, in order to generate extra income to the state's budget (for social care mainly). These governments argued that private funding would make problematic highways much better, because of the investments received. In fact, many private-controlled paved highways are in very good condition (with many of them having critical problems before), but other people argue that private-controlled paved highways charge more at the toll stations and that these highways have more toll stations than public-controlled paved highways (in order to compensate for the investment done).
In the 1930s the route of the road was changed to pass by the new capital of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, although it was unpaved until 1957, when the road was extended to Brasília, the new capital of Brazil.
From 1951 to 1973 BR-040 was called BR-3 and was famous for its dangerous bends, such as the Almas Bridge, near Belo Horizonte, which is used until today. In the 1970s the part from Rio de Janeiro to Juiz de Fora was modernized and become a two-laned road.
Cities where the BR-050 runs or passes by: Brasília, Uberlândia and Uberaba. At the border of the state of São Paulo, it merges with Rodovia Anhanguera (SP-330) and passes by Ribeirao Preto, Limeira, Campinas and São Paulo, then it merges with Rodovia Anchieta (SP-150) and passes by São Bernardo do Campo and Santos.
The Rio-Niterói Bridge is part of the BR-101.
Cities where the BR-101 runs or passes by: Natal, João Pessoa, Olinda, Recife, Maceió, Aracaju, [[Feira de Santana], Itabuna, Ilhéus, Porto Seguro, Linhares, Vitória, Guarapari, Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, Barra Mansa, Santos, Curitiba, Joinville, Florianópolis, Criciúma, Osório, Porto Alegre.
The highway is especially busy along the Joinville-Curitiba-São Paulo-Rio de Janeiro section. The Curitiba-São Paulo section of the highway is known as Rodovia Régis Bittencourt, nicknamed "Rodovia da Morte" (Highway of death), due to its many accidents caused by the unstable weather conditions of the region. The São Paulo-Rio de Janeiro section is named Rodovia Presidente Dutra, and it is the busiest section of the highway, running into or near of 15 cities with more than 200.000 habitants.
Cities where the BR-116 runs or passes by: Fortaleza, Salgueiro, Feira de Santana, Vitória da Conquista, Teófolio Otoni, Governador Valadares, Rio de Janeiro, Volta Redonda, São José dos Campos, São Paulo, Curitiba, Lages, Canoas, Porto Alegre
BR-230 or Rodovia Transamazônica is Brazil's third longest highway, running in an east-west direction. It was planned and built in the late 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, to connect the isolated state of Amazonas and region with the rest of the country.
It was planned to be more or less 8.000 km long, mostly paved and connecting the North and Northeast Brazilian regions and Ecuador and Peru, but nowadays it is 2.500 km long and mostly unpaved (dirt). BR-230 was inaugurated in August 30, 1972, and since then did not suffer any major alterations.
Other problems were the beginning of deforestation and the creation of numerous small villages along the highway, and traffic is impracticable during the rainy season of the year (October - March). Still, the highway is very important, by connecting the region with the rest of the country. A major plan to pave most of the highway is under consideration by the Brazilian government, as of 2004.
One of the two major highways connecting the isolated capital city of Manaus, it is mostly unpaved, and though, traffic is impracticable in the rainy seasons of the year. Even though, it connects the city to the South (and more habited) regions of the country, making BR-319 a major highway of national integration.
As of December 2005, this highway is under reconstruction within a 420 kilometer stretch between Caiero and Humaita. The complete re-paving work is expected to be finished by 2007, reestablishing the land connection between Manaus and the rest ou the country.