James H. Burnley IV, the No. 2 official at the Department of Transportation, has emerged as the leading candidate to become the new secretary of transportation, White House officials said last night.

A senior official said that Burnley, who was recommended for the post by outgoing Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, is expected to be nominated this week. The official said Burnley had been recommended by other senior staff members as well as Dole, but that President Reagan had not made a final decision.

"All the signs are that the president will choose Burnley and choose him soon, but the formal decision has yet to be made," the official said.

Earlier, The Detroit News reported that Reagan had already selected Deputy Secretary Burnley, 39, for the post.

"Burnley is a candidate, but there are other candidates, and no final decision has been made," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.

Dole, the highest-ranking woman in the administration, is leaving the Cabinet tonight to devote full time to the presidential campaign of her husband, Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).

Sources said others considered to succeed Dole include at least two women -- Patricia Goldman, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, and Wendy Lee Gramm, an official at the Office of Management and Budget.

Other candidates mentioned included Ralph Stanley, head of the department's Urban Mass Transit Administration, and former senator Mark Andrews (R-N.D.).