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New Head of Caltrans: Tony Tavares, Chief of Bay Area and L.A. Districts

On Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Tony Tavares, current Caltrans District 7 Chief, as the new head of Caltrans.

Tavares is no stranger to Caltrans headquarters, where he served for years as Division Chief for Maintenance. He also more recently headed up Caltrans District 4 in the Bay Area for several years, and was appointed by Newsom as Chief of District 7, which covers Los Angeles and Ventura counties, in 2020.

As head of these two large and dynamic Caltrans districts, Tavares kept a light hand in guiding the districts' focus towards sustainable transportation and complete streets, while at the same time overseeing an annual $2 billion construction program, most of it for highways.

Tavares has embraced the goal of Vision Zero, and has supported the ideas of a "modern multimodal transportation system" and improving community engagement. He is also returning to a department that has slowly been adjusting to the idea that it has other responsibilities than just highways, including air quality, climate change, and sustainable transportation. Under the previous Director, Toks Omishakin, Caltrans had been building some experience in this area, incorporating a new focus on sustainability into its practices and planning, including in its organizational chart.

Omishakin issued directives to include complete streets in all Caltrans projects, as well as a requirement to incorporate the "Safe Systems Approach," also known as Vision Zero, into its work. Quietly, without drawing attention to it, Caltrans even recently posted a webpage explaining induced demand, adding it as an official reference (whereas traffic engineers usually resist the notion that adding lanes ends up creating more traffic).

However, a sense of urgency to embrace these changes has been missing. To his credit, Tavares urged L.A. Metro to abandon its plans to expand Highway 710, and has spoken in support of complete streets. What remains to be seen is whether he will push hard enough to maintain the ongoing changes, or whether they will subsumed into the oozing inertia that reigns at Caltrans.

Sustainable, multimodal transportation - not the completion of outdated highway expansion plans or "filling gaps" in the already overbuilt highway system - is the direction California desperately needs to go in. If California is lucky, Tavares will keep Caltrans to that path.

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