Norm Rolfe, a sane voice for transportation planning

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Norm Rolfe, a voice for sane transportation planning

By Jerry Cauthen and Mary Anne Miller

For almost 50 years Norman Rolfe, transportation activist and dedicated San Franciscan, was a strong and consistent champion of a more pedestrian-oriented and less car-oriented San Francisco. He died on Friday, January 15 at the age of 84.

Norm Rolfe could be called the voice of sane transportation planning in San Francisco. With his well reasoned and strongly voiced arguments, he helped save the cable cars and the Muni J-Line. He helped prevent upper Market Street from being converted into a San Jose style, 8-lane "boulevard.” He also helped block the Second Crossing, an ill-conceived scheme to build another transbay automobile bridge.

In the early 1960's, Rolfe joined others to keep a freeway from running through the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park, and thus became an influential part of San Francisco’s campaign to prevent the California Division of Highways from ripping the city to shreds in deference to the almighty auto. Later he helped block the scheme for building an auto tunnel under Russian Hill. And he was one of the first people to call for the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway.

After the Central Freeway was damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, Rolfe was also part of the successful campaign to tear it down and replace it with a new Octavia Boulevard. In recent years, he strongly opposed the grandiose plan to build an unnecessary, full-sized freeway through the Presidio of San Francisco. He also fought against the Metropolitian Transportation Commission’s unaccountable desire to expand Bay Area freeways under the guise of its so-called HOT lane program.

In 1970 Rolfe became one of San Francisco Tomorrow's original members and has long served on its Board of Directors as chair of its Transportation Committee. In 1971, he helped write San Francisco Tomorrow's transportation policy, which remains largely intact and current today. He also was active for many years on the Sierra Club’s Bay Chapter transportation committee.

Rolfe studied every issue thoroughly and usually got to the crux of the matter while everyone else was still on the first page. He strongly supported the return of streetcar service to Market Street and later the extension of the line along the Embarcadero (a service now highly popular with tourists and San Franciscans alike). In public hearings and in meetings with public officials, he never minced words. He expected other people to be persuaded by his voice and was impatient when they did not see things as clearly and with as much farsightedness as he did. He was incapable of sugar-coating an issue, or spinning it or making it more palatable for his audience.

He was a strong and consistent but nevertheless fair-minded advocate of passenger rail. While a long time supporter of the vitally important Tranbay Terminal/Caltrain Extension Project, Rolfe correctly foresaw major weakness in the ill-conceived BART/SFIA extension, now widely recognized as a short-sighted and money losing failure. More recently he opposed the squandering of scarce Muni capital on an ultra-expensive, virtually useless short piece of subway a third of the way into Chinatown.

At the time of his death, Rolfe was a member of the Citizens Advisory Council for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Citizens Advisory Committee for the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, and the Octavia Boulevard Central Freeway Citizens Advisory Committee.

He will be missed.

Jerry Cauthen is a longtime environmental activist and former president of San Francisco Tomorrow. Mary Anne Miller is the editor of the San Francisco Tomorrow newsletter.