Yes, Virginia, there really is a Fairbank Highway Research Center.

And no, it is not a cover for the Central Intelligence Agency.

For years, signs along the George Washington Parkway and Dolley Madison Highway (Va. Rte. 123) near McLean have marked the way down winding access roads to a secluded government agency called the Fairbank Highway Research Center.

This did not fool most drivers; locals knew that the CIA really was back in those woods.

Yesterday, as proof of its existence alongside the CIA's headquarters, the Department of Transportation dedicated a new $6.5 million research laboratory, and renamed it the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center.

The persistent rumors about the allegedly deceptive signs bothered the CIA enough to prompt its public affairs office to issue a rare press release several years ago declaring: "The signs pointing to the research facility were . . .there before the CIA was. And they have been telling the truth from the beginning."

Federal Highway Administration officials who operate the center insist that they never have been bothered that some might assume the center existed only as a roadway sign, even though the center opened in 1950--nine years before construction began on the sprawling CIA complex next door.

"We've deliberately run a low profile," said highway science advisor Charles Scheffey.

Too low, perhaps. The three-level, brick-and-glass laboratory dedicated yesterday was authorized by Congress 45 years ago. Congress, however, did not get around to appropriating the money to build the lab until the late 1970s.

"We have waited a long time for the completion of this excellent and well-equipped facility," Transportation Secretary Elizabeth H. Dole told the audience of about 500 who turned out to witness the dedication of the building and eat barbeque. The center's cavernous rooms will be used to construct models of bridges and roads for weight testing, as well as simulators to study driver stress and reaction to road conditions.

While the highway agency was waiting for federal funds for the laboratory, other agencies were busy "gobbling up our land," according to Scheffey.

The center's original 600 acres has been nibbled to 44 acres, taken in chunks by the CIA and the Park Service, Scheffey said.

Meanwhile, after years of controversy over signs, a discreet brown-and-white-lettered sign near the access road on the George Washington Parkway reads "Federal Highway Administration and Central Intelligence Agency."

There would be more signs noting the CIA's location, the agency has said, but the signs kept getting stolen.