A highway engineer is a civil engineering expert who designs new roads, overpasses, and highway ramps. She may specialize in creating initial blueprints for new highway systems, determining the best materials and methods to use, or overseeing the actual construction process. Professionals typically conduct extensive research regarding the amount of traffic that will utilize new roads to create the most effective, economical design plans. Most highway engineers are employed by governmental transportation departments, though some work for private consulting firms and research institutions.
Urban planning committees and government agencies typically consult an expert engineer when they determine the need for a new highway. The engineer first conducts initial research about an area, including the shape of the land, weather patterns, and the prospective amount of automobiles that will use the new road. If land is undeveloped, she can advise the planning committee on the best ways of clearing vegetation and leveling hills. For road replacement jobs, the highway engineer usually determines if any part of the old road can be salvaged or if it should be completely removed and replaced with a new design.
The highway engineer usually draws sketches and creates computer models to perfect her design plans. Some designs are relatively straightforward, such as those for long stretches of straight highways through deserts, while others are extremely intricate, such as interchanges between major thoroughfares in a big city. The main goal of a highway engineer is to design systems that are cost-efficient as well as safe and reliable for travelers.
Some highway engineers engage in the research and development of better building materials and new techniques for installing roadways. Professionals may work with materials scientists, for example, to develop stronger support beams and asphalt that is less prone to wear and erosion. They put prototypes of new products and processes through computer simulations and realistic practical tests to determine efficacy.
It is common for a highway engineer to work on-site during the construction phase of a project. She monitors the quality of work and ensures that the project stays within its time and budget constraints. The engineer communicates with project managers and site supervisors to discuss concerns that may arise during a job. Any design flaws are examined and corrected in a timely manner to keep the project on schedule.
A bachelor's degree is typically the minimum educational requirement to become a highway engineer. Some contracting companies and government bodies prefer to hire professionals who hold master's degrees in civil engineering. New engineers usually work under the supervision of established professionals for up to four years to gain practical experience. In many states and countries, highway engineers must pass written certification exams before they can work independently on projects.