How to Become a Transportation Engineer: Steps Toward a Dynamic Career in Civil Engineering

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A transportation engineer is consulting plans on a laptop at a work site.Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) develops a report that analyzes the United States’ infrastructure. In its most recent report, published in 2017, the ASCE gave the country a score of D+. The ASCE’s report noted that in addition to its roads and other infrastructure, the nation’s bridges were also in need of significant repair, with the average cost of improvements estimated at $123 billion.

The ASCE estimates that $4.6 trillion needs to be invested in the nation’s infrastructure through 2025 to mitigate damage and retain infrastructural integrity. To meet this demand, professionals with an advanced degree in civil engineering and a background in transportation engineering are needed to help lead this far-reaching effort.      

What Does a Transportation Engineer Do?

Civil engineers who choose to specialize as transportation engineers have the opportunity to help the federal government, states, and local communities develop safer transportation systems. They create, design, and build the various engineering systems that make up the infrastructure of roadways, bridges, seaports, airports, and railways. These professionals are responsible for ensuring transportation systems are efficient, safe, and economically viable.

Responsibilities of a Transportation Engineer

Transportation engineers assume a variety of responsibilities to meet various project demands. The position requires professionals to be able to multitask and thrive in a dynamic workplace environment. While every project and role requires different duties and responsibilities, all transportation engineers must be able to analyze engineering data and make accurate design calculations to assist in final planning for transportation systems.

These professionals have the experience and knowledge to evaluate existing infrastructures to determine and address the areas that are in need of rehabilitation. For example, transportation engineers can evaluate roadway data to identify areas that may be contributing to gridlock or accidents. They can then use this data to investigate these issues and recommend to local or state agencies how to correct traffic flow and ensure public safety.

The Role of Data Analysis in Transportation Engineering

Data analysis plays a significant role in providing transportation engineers with the necessary information to make informed decisions. They analyze engineering data to evaluate a variety of variables that may be impacting transportation safety and integrity. For example, engineers can evaluate and compile transportation data from roadways over a specific time period. They can leverage this data to better understand traffic flow and conditions.

Using this data, engineers can develop transportation systems that integrate data analytics through intelligent transportation systems (ITS). ITS technologies enable engineers to evaluate real-time data that can help communities monitor traffic conditions and take the necessary steps to increase transportation safety. Engineers can also implement strategies to enforce speed limits in particular segments of roadways that are dangerous.

Moreover, transportation engineers can develop ITS that enable communities to monitor traffic through the implementation of RFID technology (radio-frequency identification). The use of data analytics in conjunction with ITS can save lives. With input from transportation engineers, communities can respond to car accidents in real-time by analyzing data through ITS. The primary goal of a successful transportation engineering project should be to ensure overall public safety, financial sustainability, and efficiency.

Steps to Becoming a Transportation Engineer

Civil engineers who are interested in becoming certified in transportation engineering should consider an advanced degree. Alongside an advanced degree, civil engineers may pursue various certification opportunities in the field. Before earning an advanced degree and certification, individuals need to take certain steps prior to achieving their goal of a career in the field.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step in pursuing a career as a transportation engineer requires individuals to acquire a bachelor’s degree. They must earn a bachelor’s degree in an engineering discipline from an accredited four-year university. After graduation, many individuals choose to take the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam that certifies them to pursue entry-level or intern positions in engineering. Some students may decide to take the exam prior to graduation.

Step 2: Gain Work Experience

Upon completion of the FE exam, civil engineers need to meet the work experience requirements enforced by their state to become fully licensed engineers. Most states require individuals to have at least four years of work experience under the guidance of a licensed engineer. After completing the work requirement, engineers may take the Professional Engineer (PE) exam, which certifies them as licensed engineers.

Step 3: Earn a Master’s Degree

A postgraduate degree in civil engineering can prepare engineering professionals with the knowledge to excel in the field, as well as command higher salaries and qualify for leadership positions. An advanced degree in civil engineering can prepare students to pass the certification exams that are required to specialize in transportation engineering.

Step 4: Obtain a Certification

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) offers a variety of certifications. These can help professionals acquire the knowledge to pursue leadership positions. The ASCE offers six certifications that are related to transportation engineering in particular. They include coastal engineering, geotechnical engineering, navigation engineering, ocean engineering, ports engineering, and water resource engineering. To be certified, professionals must pass the PE exam and have at least eight years of work experience in engineering.

The Essential Skill Set of a Transportation Engineer

Those interested in pursuing a career in transportation engineering must acquire the necessary work experience, education, and certification. Moreover, they must master a unique skill set to effectively navigate their position as a transportation engineer. These core competencies include analytical, leadership, math/problem solving, decision making, and communication skills.

  • Analytical Acumen. Transportation engineers must possess a high level of analytical skill to interpret data. These professionals must understand data sets that enable them to make informed decisions in the finalization of engineering plans.
  • Many transportation engineers in leadership positions oversee the work of less experienced professionals. As such, they often have the final sign off on engineering plans, as well as the responsibility of teaching novice engineers the inner workings of the trade.
  • Math/Problem-Solving. Transportation engineers implement the fundamentals of mathematics to develop, analyze, and execute engineering plans. These professionals have an acute understanding of the principles of trigonometry and calculus.
  • Decision Making. These engineers must balance the objectives laid out by those commissioning projects with realistic expectations. They are able to create plans that meet budgetary constraints without sacrificing safety and efficiency.
  • Transportation engineers exhibit high-level communication skills that enable them to convey technical information to individuals who may lack an engineering background. Moreover, they communicate with their co-workers about the steps to execute engineering plans.

The Salary of a Transportation Engineer

The median annual salary for civil engineers was about $87,060 in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Professionals with years of work experience, certification, and an advanced degree in the field can expect to command higher salaries. Individuals who work in densely-populated states, such as California and New York, can expect to earn higher compensation. For example, individuals in California earn an annual mean wage of $110,480, while their counterparts in New York command an annual mean wage of $96,480.

Discover How to Pursue a Rewarding Career as a Transportation Engineer

The American Transportation Research Institute reports that congested highways cost manufacturers $74.5 billion in increased transportation costs. These are costs that all of us ultimately pay as consumers of goods. Transportation engineers have the ability to help mitigate and rehabilitate the failing infrastructure that is negatively affecting public safety and impacting the overall cost efficiency of the transportation of goods.

Professionals who seek a career in transportation engineering can pursue an advanced degree in civil engineering. Ohio University offers an online Master of Science in Civil Engineering that provides engineering professionals with many advantages. It offers a flexible curriculum and concentrations in a variety of areas, including Construction Engineering and Management, Environmental Engineering, Structural Engineering, and Transportation Engineering.

Engineering professionals who are interested in exploring the Transportation Engineering concentration will take advanced courses in Principles of Pavement Design, Transportation Design I, Environmental Analysis Transportation Systems, and Traffic Parameters.

Explore how Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Civil Engineering can prepare you for a rewarding leadership role as a transportation engineer. 

Recommended Readings

How Augmented and Virtual Reality Can Boost Productivity in Construction

Six New Approaches to Green Building Design

Transportation Design Strategies for Reducing Traffic Congestion


American Society of Civil Engineers, 2017 Infrastructure Report Card

American Society of Civil Engineers, America’s Infrastructure Grades Remain Near Failing

American Society of Civil Engineers, Professional Certifications

Government Technology, Real-Time Data Analytics Aims to Reduce Traffic Fatalities

Houston Chronicle, Careers of Transportation Engineering

Michigan Civil Service Commission Job Specification, Transportation Engineer

Odyssey, US Truck Congestion Costs Billions Annually

PayScale, Average Transportation Engineer Salary

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Civil Engineers