Back in its glory days during the early 1960s, the Virginia Highway Department devised another of its grand road-building schemes that was supposed to enrich the quality of life for the people of Northern Virginia.

As outlined by state bureaucrats at innumerable public meetings, the plan was simple enough: bulldoze Great Falls Street, a tree-lined two-lane road that swings through residential neighborhoods in McLean, and turn it into a four-lane highway.

There was only one small problem: Hardly anybody in Fairfax County wanted any part of it.

"It was the stupidest thing I ever heard," recalled State Sen. Clive DuVal, a Fairfax Democrat who represented the area. "They were going to knock down trees, front lawns, and shrubs . . . so people could go bombing away right up to the city limits of Falls Church."

McLean was up in arms. A committee was formed. Emissaries were sent to Richmond to convey the community's opposition.

Did that deter the road-builders in Richmond? Not one whit, said DuVal.

"Their attitude was--'Screw you,' " he said. "They told us, 'We're the professionals and you're the citizens. We're not asking for your opinion and we don't care what you think.' "

That was how it used to be during the great highway wars of the '60s and '70s. Once the biggest and most powerful of all state agencies, fueled by a virtually unregulated budget and an untouchable gas tax trust fund, the highway department was then the titan of Virginia government, a citadel of concrete that formed the backbone of the political organization of Harry F. Byrd Sr.

It was, as DuVal and other critics were fond of saying, an "empire" whose "czars"--state highway commissioners like Douglas B. Fugate--plotted new roads and highways with professional zeal, often paying little heed to the wishes of citizens in urban areas, particularly the Washington suburbs. Either the roads were built despite the objections of Northern Virginians, or the department simply would take its project elsewhere in the state.

The new 10-mile stretch of I-66 that opens today is, to some, a monument to the highway department's insensitivity and recklessness--a big-league version of the long-since-abandoned plans for Great Falls Street. At a final cost of little better than $27 million per mile, I-66 was pushed through by the highway department, with the fervent backing of former Gov. Mills E. Godwin, a Byrd stalwart, over the heated protests of many Arlington residents and almost all of its elected officials.

To others--thousands of citizens in western Fairfax County and Prince William County--it is a much-needed commuter artery that was delayed by bickering among Northern Virginia jurisdictions, feuding that some now say cost the Washington suburbs millions of dollars in lost funding for highway construction.

Whether I-66 will be the transportation success highway officials promise or the congestion-clogged environmental nightmare depicted by the critics remains to be seen.

But one verdict is already in. There are no more I-66's or other superhighways on the drawing boards here. The days of the great highway wars are coming to an end.

"We're in a different era," said Harold C. King, the pleasant and ever-accommodating former federal bureaucrat who now occupies the commissioner's chair on Broad Street. "We're in the era of accountability."

It is, to be sure, an era born of necessity and circumstance rather than change of heart. By the late 1970s, state gasoline consumption began to decline and department revenues dwindled. In the early 1980s, scandal tainted the highway department as federal prosecutors uncovered massive bid-rigging by road contractors. Suddenly there were cries from state legislators to rein in the department and wrest control over its road-building budget.

To a large extent, those demands already have been met. No longer are highway engineers free to determine where to build roads without oversight from General Assembly watchdog committees or the governor's budget analysts. Moreover, King has attempted to fend off the legislative wolves through internal budget pruning. Department personnel rolls are down 20 percent: from 12,865 when King took over in 1978 to 10,200. Whole offices, such as five of the eight regional outposts that churned out new highway signs, have been shut down.

Most fundamental, however, is a shift in the department's mission. With the near-completion of the state's portion of the federal interstate system, highway engineers are turning away from the big, expensive and often unpopular projects of yesteryear.

"There's been a redirection away from building new roads towards improving and maintaining the roads that already exist," said department spokesman Albert Coates.

As highway planners look to the future in Northern Virginia, two big projects are still in the offing: the 13-mile, $57-million Dulles Toll Road, on which construction will begin next spring, and the 35-mile, $182-million Springfield Bypass, a controversial Fairfax County project for which funding remains problematic.

But a glance at the department's six-year plan, approved by the General Assembly in March, illustrates the "redirection" of which Coates speaks. Most of the plan for Northern Virginia is inoffensive fare: an extension of the Shirley Highway commuter lanes from Springfield to Dale City (at $76 million, the big-ticket item), a few new interchanges and a bridge on Arlington Boulevard, a half-mile widening of Lee Highway in Fairfax. Nothing, highway officials believe, that will generate controversy.

The one big project that until recently did have local residents stirred up--a planned interstate connector through Crystal City to National Airport--has been scaled down considerably, highway officials say. It now amounts to a simple improvement and widening of the Rte. 1 corrider.

"We've done a lot better communicating with the public than we ever did before," said commissioner King. "It's something we were short on."