Safety drives engineer to leadership role

Rebecca Wells
Rebecca Wells

Rebecca Wells always stressed safety to her two girls as they grew up, reminding them to buckle up each time they got into the car.

Now they are 22 and 20, and she tells them the same thing.

As a newly appointed district engineer in the Texas Department of Transportation Atlanta District, one of her focuses will be on the safety of Texas roadways.

"There's a lot of people in rural Texas who don't think you have to wear your seatbelt when you are on a county road or just going to town," she said.

But those old thoughts couldn't be farther from the truth.

Wells wants to use her position to educate Texans, and, in turn, save Texan lives when they are traveling in their vehicles.

In her position, Wells, a professional engineer, will oversee the planning, design, operation, and maintenance of the state transportation system for Atlanta's nine-county area.

Wells is the first woman to lead operations in TxDOT's Atlanta District and was named the ninth female district engineer in the department's history. She has been with TxDOT for 22 years.

"It's a great honor to be selected as the district engineer for this area," she said. "I plan to work hard as we continue to enhance the mobility and safety of our local roadways."

There are seven women who are licensed as professional engineers in TxDOT's 9-county Atlanta District, according to Heather Deaton, public information officer of the district.

The Atlanta District includes Bowie, Camp, Cass, Harrison, Marion, Morris, Panola, Titus and Upshur counties.

Growing up, Wells was like most young students and did not yet have a career path lined out for herself. This all changed her sophomore year at Lockhart High School, in Lockhart, Texas -- about 30 miles south of downtown Austin.

There, a high school counselor discovered her abilities in science and math and told Wells she would make a great engineer.

A profession like engineering was something that intrigued Wells as it would provide a good living. She had grown up seeing her parent's struggle and didn't want to repeat that pattern.

"They were like most people, they lived from paycheck to paycheck," she said. "I wanted to make money. I didn't want to do what my parents did."

When Wells went on to study at Texas A&M in College Station, she never wavered from her path in engineering and knew what she wanted to do. She thanks the high school counselor for the nudge to go into the field because she said she doesn't know what she would have chosen otherwise.

"I knew I was capable and had the aptitude to do these parts of engineering. I remember back in third grade and doing long division by hand and thinking, 'that was fun.' I got a kick out of it," she said. "I always say I had a really good high school counselor. She really changed my world."

Wells has served as the Atlanta District director of transportation operations since 2018. Before that, she served as the district traffic engineer. She began her career with TxDOT as a summer hire.

Upon obtaining her Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from Texas A&M University, she joined a private engineering firm in Longview for several years. But in 2001, Wells rejoined TxDOT.

Wells said she wanted to try the private engineering firm and see what working at one was like, but with the lengthy unforgiving hours she knew having a family and seeing them would be difficult. Wells and her husband, Kyle, have two daughters, Kayden, 22, who lives in Las Vegas and is a professional dancer, and Kendall, 20, who is a student at Texas A&M University.

So, Wells decided to go back to TxDOT and said she thinks she has made the right decision as the Atlanta District truly gives its employees an opportunity to make a good living while staying active in the community.

"A hidden benefit of the Atlanta District is the work to life balance," she said. "Most people were raised in this area and still get to go to the football games and the pep rallies. Maybe they work late on Monday, so they can take off early another day to go to the pep rally."

As a young engineer, Wells spent time in design, advance planning, and construction. In 2006, she began work in traffic operations where she has spent much of her time focusing on system safety.

"Since 2006, my focus has been on fatal crashes in our district and the circumstances that led up to those fatal crashes," she said. "That has really affected me personally and drives my desire to enhance our state roadways as much as we can."

As a mother, Wells has found the fatal crashes involving small children and teenagers some of the most difficult she has had to study. A tip she has for parents teaching their teen to drive is to not scream in the vehicle if something is going on that is wrong as this could lead to an accident. Also, check your rear view mirror to see what is coming up on the roadway behind you as it could be an 18-wheeler and you might need to change lanes. Getting caught between 18-wheelers never ends well, she said.

Another tip is, of course, never text and drive and always buckle up.

Wells is involved with several national and statewide research panels focusing on system safety.

"During most of my career with TxDOT, I have continually looked for ways to incorporate new research and technologies into district operations, and I will continue to bring that expertise to the table in my new position. We want everyone to arrive back home safely at the end of the day. Everything we do impacts those we love and care about."

Wells' appointment this September follows the August retirement of Jere "Buddy" Williams, a professional engineer, who had served the department for 32 years.

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