On the George Washington Parkway near the Beltway, you’ll drive pass the exit for the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters in bucolic Langley, Virginia. That’s no secret: pilots descending into Reagan National Airport often use CIA HQ as a visual aid to guide the aircraft to the Potomac River and then to the runway a few miles south.
There’s also a brown National Park Service sign stating:
I’ve driven past this sign hundreds of times, and so has every CIA employee who has ever taken the back entrance to work. Yet few have much of an idea what “FHWA” means — or why on earth it’s next to CIA’s HQ.
Dear reader, here are some answers:
What is FHWA? FHWA stands for the Federal Highway Administration, an agency of the Department of Transportation. (Not to be confused with the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA.)
FHWA “supports State and local governments in the design, construction, and maintenance of the Nation’s highway system (Federal Aid Highway Program) and various federally and tribal owned lands (Federal Lands Highway Program).”
Basically, if you’ve ever driven on a highway, you have FHWA to thank for building and maintaining it.
FHWA’s website indicates its headquarters are in SE Washington DC…so what is this Langley facility? It’s the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC), and its address is in McLean, despite being across the street from the CIA’s parking lot in Langley. This facility consumes over half of FHWA’s research budget and holds almost two-dozen labs and data centers and performs all manner of research on “vehicle-highway interaction.”
This means TFHRC’s employees—some 300 in all—perform research into highway-related topics that most people don’t think about when they’re driving to and from work. For example, the facility has a lab that simulates truck traffic – literally, a lab that pounds the pavement – and one that tests new concrete.
There are more esoteric infrastructure-related issues examined here too, like “Experimental testing of full-scaled horizontally curved steel highway bridges” and “Development of Advanced Connection Systems for Adjacent Concrete Box Beams.” This might sound a bit wonky, but most Americans have far more interactions with “curved steel highway bridges” than, say, the intelligence community.
Why is the FHWA facility next to the CIA? Actually, this series of buildings predate the CIA campus by a number of years. The land where CIA’s headquarters now exists was only purchased in the mid 1950s, and was only dedicated in 1961.
Yet FHWA had been testing highway-related devices and activities since 1950, when it was named the “Langley Research Station” under the Bureau of Public Roads. The Bureau had actually owned some 742 acres since the late 1930s, but WWII interrupted construction on the research facility. The Bureau of Public Roads was renamed FHWA in 1966.
In the 1960s, CIA gobbled up some 225 acres of FHWA’s land, including the stately Scattergood-Thorne estate near Highway 123 that is now a CIA conference center.
What else is over there? TFHRC has a highway-driving simulator, the only one in the world. As Public Roads Magazine recently noted:
The simulator consists of a full automobile chassis surrounded by a cylindrical projection screen onto which three projectors render a seamless 200-degree field of view that shows high-quality computer-generated roadway scenes. Its six degree-of-freedom motion-based system provides pitch and surge (for acceleration and braking), lateral, roll, yaw (for curve and turning forces), and heave (for bumps), which are all synchronized with the onscreen imagery. The simulator’s sound system provides engine, wind, and even tire noises.
Like in Grand Theft Auto? Some may argue it’s even better than GTA.*
Awesome! Can I take a tour of TFHRC? Yes you can.
Finally, have there been any instances of FHWA or DOT employees going to TFHRC, taking a wrong turn, and ended up being detained by CIA’s security force? According to FHWA public affairs official Doug Hecox, “As for interactions between employees and those of a neighboring agency, we have no such stories to share.”
*Some may argue otherwise.