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Keeping California Moving: Tony Tavares

As Director of the California Department of Transportation, Tony Tavares is responsible for helping 39 million people get from A to B in the safest and most responsible ways.

When Tony Tavares was eight years old, something happened in the small coastal community in California where his family lived that would have a profound effect on the rest of his life.

The event would set him off on a path to a job where he leads a team of 22,000 and controls a US$20 billion budget. Not only that, as part of the Governor’s administration, his decisions affect the lives of all 39 million Californians. On that momentous day, his dad took his hand and they walked across town to where a huge construction project was getting underway. As Tavares gazed wide-eyed at the bulldozers, earth movers and mighty trucks rumbling across the vast building site, something inside him clicked.

“My parents always emphasized the importance of a good education, hard work and being committed and dedicated to a cause or purpose in life.”

“Not a lot happened in the neighborhood, but this was clearly a big deal and it seemed like all the townspeople were watching as well,” Tavares tells The CEO Magazine. “I was so excited to see the heavy equipment and vehicles moving around in a very synchronized manner.

“Then my father pointed out a gentleman standing next to an orange pickup looking at a set of plans and pointing in different directions and told me he was the engineer, the person in charge ensuring the work was being done appropriately.”

Destined to Help Others

From that moment on, Tavares knew that engineering would be his destiny. He found out as much as he could about it during his final years at school and had mentors who steered him towards a particular segment of the profession.

“They could see I was very focused on helping others and having purpose in life so suggested I try civil engineering,” he remembers. “I guess the term is really about people. It’s designing, planning and building infrastructure that helps people.”

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And, as Director of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), he’s currently helping a great many people. He was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom in June 2022 after serving as Director of Caltrans District 7, where he oversaw the transportation needs of a quarter of the state’s population.

His department looks after 80,000 lane kilometers (50,000 lane miles) of highway and 20,000 bridges, as well as providing permits and inspections for more than 400 airports. He oversees the funding of three of the busiest intercity rail services and supports 200 transit agencies.

A Focus on People

The sheer volume of infrastructure projects Tavares has greenlit means there will be plenty more young kids dazzled enough by the excitement of seeing a construction site to want to emulate the workers involved.

“I took the advice I received at school and became a civil engineer and have worked for Caltrans almost my entire career – a little over 30 years now. It’s allowed me to grow not only as a technical expert, but as someone who’s people-focused in everything I do.”

More specifically, he wants to keep more road users alive and aims to achieve zero traffic-related deaths and serious injuries by 2050 through comprehensive safety improvements.

“It’s going to take engineering to look at how we can do infrastructure a little differently.”

He knows it’s an ambitious target, as over the last 10 years, the number killed on Californian roadways has consistently edged upwards, reaching 4400 in 2022, or almost 12 a day. The figure represents around 10 percent of all annual traffic-related deaths in the United States.

“Just think about it, that’s 12 families that don’t have a mother, father, brother or sister coming home that night. It’s very poignant to me and hits me very personally. I want to turn those numbers around.”

To do so, he plans to launch a range of public education campaigns, and work with schools and other agencies to reduce three of the main killers: excess speed, impaired drivers and loss of concentration behind the wheel.

Delivery with Purpose

In addition to safety, another of his core foundational principles is putting people front and center of every project.

“It’s certainly true that infrastructure has to get people from point A to point B, but what I instill in my teams is consideration of the purpose of that infrastructure, how it impacts lives,” Tavares says. “That’s where I’ve been taking our organization.”

“What continues to drive me is nurturing a focus that’s way beyond just delivering a project,” he continues. “Engineers are trained to solve problems, and I can solve almost any problem you give me, but it may not be the right solution for you.

“That’s why we need engagement with communities to understand their needs, whether they’ll be utilizing the infrastructure or living nearby it.”

Part of that process is pursuing sustainability in every aspect of his work. To that end, he’s on track to achieve his target of a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2030.

Economic Growth

Tavares is also a firm believer that his organization can bring equity through greater prosperity.

Providing accessible, reliable transportation that allows everyone to get to their workplace, school or home helps them in their personal lives, but also fosters economic advantages.

Doing that means harnessing the latest technology to pioneer some radically new ways of working.

“It’s going to take engineering to look at how we can do infrastructure a little differently. How do we use it to save lives by enhancing safety along corridors with high numbers of crashes, for example? How can we deploy enforcement on highways to slow cars down and avoid crashes?” he says.

There are a lot more questions he’ll have to find answers to, but the immense challenge doesn’t faze him. Perhaps because his dad did a lot more than just open his eyes to what was to become an incredibly successful and fulfilling career.

“My parents are immigrants and that’s had a profound effect on me and my career,” he reflects. “They’ve always emphasized the importance of a good education, hard work and being committed and dedicated to a cause or purpose in life.”

Cutting-Edge Expertise

Tavares’ team uses the latest AI algorithms to devise transport solutions to boost safety and increase traffic flow. Leading infrastructure engineering consults AECOM have deployed their cutting-edge expertise to several projects.

Earlier this year, AECOM was awarded the Vermont Transit Corridor Planning and Environmental Study, which will devise a strategy for comprehensive bus rapid transit and rail improvement between Hollywood Boulevard and 120th Street in Los Angeles.

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