Caltrans Director Tony Tavares travels the state each week, overseeing 55,000 lane miles of highways, 24,000 bridges and more. Here he’s meeting with a Caltrans crew in Sacramento. (Photos by Wes Davis)

The Way We Work: Tony Tavares

A glimpse into the daily life of the director of Caltrans

Back Article Apr 29, 2024 By Jeff Wilser

This story is part of our April 2024 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Tony Tavares’ job is to keep California moving. This is quite literally the case for the director of California’s Department of Transportation. Caltrans is in charge of 55,000 lane miles of highways, over 24,000 bridges, the state’s three largest Amtrak systems (the Capitol Corridor, Pacific Surfliner and San Joaquins), 400 airports and 22,000 employees. It’s a lot. And road maintenance is only part of the equation. 

 “A lot of people think that Caltrans is, ‘Go fill a pothole,’” says Tavares. “That’s one small aspect of the work that we do. But it’s really connecting people. We have 39 million people in this great state, and my job is to listen to all those voices and deliver transportation solutions for them.” 

His trick for listening to all those voices? He starts every day in the middle of the night.

Favorite to-do list system:  The Notes app on his iPhone. “Notes can be synced across multiple platforms and available to me anywhere I travel.”
Trick for staying focused: “Don’t get caught up in the noise. Stay focused and true to your values and continue to make a positive impact on people’s lives.”

3:00AM – He’s been waking up this early for years. “My body is used to it. I can think more clearly early in the morning.” He catches up on emails and urgent overnight issues.

3:45AM – Hops on a stationary bike, and considers this a “type of meditation.”

4:15AM – Lifts weights. 

5:00AM - Makes himself a protein shake, then takes his poodle Sadie out for a 2-mile walk. Showers.

6:00AM - Breakfast with his daughter and his wife, Olivia Tavares. (They have five kids between the two of them, with only one still at home.)

7:00AM - Commutes from his home in Elk Grove to his office near the state Capitol; along the way he’ll return any urgent calls. 

7:30AM – Greets the early risers already at the office, catches up on email. 

8:30AM - There are two very different types of days. Once or twice a week, Tavares travels throughout California to meet with officials at the city, county and state level, or to personally tour and monitor Caltrans projects; there are currently 1,100 projects under construction.

9:00AM – On the days when Tavares isn’t traveling, his mornings are stacked with back-to-back-to-back meetings. 

10:00AM – Meetings can include sessions with state legislators (to discuss specific bills they’re thinking of authoring), sync-ups with his chief deputy director (who helps manage his 25 direct reports), or updates on the budget and finances. 

11:00AM – To keep meetings manageable, Tavares insists that each should be framed around Caltrans’ Core Four principles: Safety, Equity, Climate Action and Economic Prosperity. A recent safety initiative, for example, is to implement a new system that harnesses AI to proactively analyze data and “eliminate crashes before they even happen.”

12:00PM – Eats a quick lunch at his desk while catching up on email. 

1:00PM – Another block of back-to-back meetings, such as working with an elected official on how to reduce traffic.

4:00PM – Tavares schedules blocks of focus time throughout the week, and he uses this window to step back, reassess and gain perspective. “Are we still doing the right things? Am I doing the right thing?” He also takes stock of what the team has accomplished. “One thing we’re very good at in this organization is getting work done,” he says, “but we don’t always pause to look back and celebrate our staff.” So he uses this time to both “look back and look forward.”

5:00PM - Follows up on any urgent loose ends.

6:00PM – Does his best to leave the office.

7:00PM – Dinner with his family. “That’s important to me: to put the phone and email to the side for a little while.”

8:00PM - The phone and email soon return, where he flags many for follow-up — likely in the morning when his mind is sharper. 

9:00PM – Winds down by reading a book, often something involving music — Tavares is a longtime drummer, even playing in several bands before taking this job. (He still keeps a drum kit in the garage and plays when he can.) Takes Sadie out for another walk.

10:00PM - Tries to get in bed, as the grind starts again in just a few short hours.  

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