The Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation has created a Northern Virginia division, revising lines of authority laid down in 1922 when the Washington suburbs were a patchwork of country roads and cow pastures.

Headquarters for the region will shift from Culpeper, a town of 7,849 people in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains more than 50 miles from the metropolitan area, to Fairfax City.

"There are tremendous traffic problems in Northern Virginia," said William B. Wrench, a Northern Virginia industrialist who serves on the state highway commission and has been campaigning for the change. "No other place in the state is putting up with this kind of abuse. The only way I know how to have the problems addressed is to have officials up here on the firing line."

Northern Virginia officials have been saying the same thing for years, and Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, recently urged that the region be given its own highway district.

The new Northern Virginia division, which will include Fairfax County, Arlington, Alexandria, Falls Church, Fairfax City, Vienna and Herndon, will be headed by Donald E. Keith, who has long been chief engineer at the department's Fairfax office. Under the old arrangement, Keith, even though he was responsible for roads serving a million people, had to report to Richmond through Culpeper.

State Highway Commissioner Harold C. King, who has been struggling to modernize his department, has directed that Keith and his new divisional office report directly to the state headquarters in Richmond.

King said, however, the new division will not automatically get any additional funds. Northern Virginia will still be listed as part of the Culpeper district when the 11-member highway commission allocates state highway funds.

But Wrench predicted that may change, too. "We're on our way to creating a new district," he said. "If anyone is smart enough to figure that out, I guess he will."

The new divisional office will include, along with Keith and his operation, David R. Gear, who heads a small highway planning office, now located in Arlington. Though Gear is supposed to be involved in transportation planning, he has had to spend most of his time handling requests for traffic lights