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Darlene Tussing

Darlene Tussing, right, gave BikeNet executive director Kristi Drake a tour of city bike trails shortly after Drake was hired late last year.

After 14 years as the chief promoter of and fundraiser for bicycle and pedestrian trails in Billings, Darlene Tussing is joining her husband in retirement.

Tussing came here in 1998 from Nebraska, after her husband, Ron Tussing, was hired as the city's police chief.

Darlene Tussing had been a Lancaster County commissioner in Nebraska, where she was active in the trail movement, and she also served on the Nebraska Trails Council.

In Billings, she soon got involved in the Yellowstone River Parks Association, whose goals included building a trail system up and down the length of the Yellowstone River through the Billings area.

That brought her into contact with Scott Walker, the transportation planner in the City-County Planning Department, and in 1999 Tussing was hired as the first alternate-modes coordinator.

She worked as a contractor the first year, then joined the department until four years ago, when she went back to being an independent contractor. Either way, the job was supposed to be part-time, but it was no secret that she worked many more hours than she was compensated for.

"That job is certainly a job of lots of passion," Walker said.

Kristi Drake, recently hired as the first full-time director of BikeNet, used similar language in describing Tussing.

"She's kind of my hero," Drake said. "I think the world of her. She's so active and passionate about trail building."

The year Tussing started was coincidentally the year that Billings voters approved a bond issue for $599,000 that was to be used to obtain $3.4 million in federal matching grants for trails.

Walker said Tussing used her knowledge and experience to obtain other funding sources that extended the life of the bond issue.

"We were able to stretch that bond issue five or six years further than it was intended to go," Walker said.

From just a few miles of trails in 1999, Billings now has 36 miles of paved trail and 17 miles of designated bikeways on city streets. Tussing says she can't take credit for all those trails, but she is proudest of a section of trail that tunnels under Main Street in the Heights.

It was a difficult, expensive project years in the making, and it was a crucial link in the citywide system of trails. Disappointments include the lack of a connector trail from the downtown to the river, but Tussing is sure that will be built eventually.

Most encouraging of all, she said, was the coming together of various groups and interests, including Riverstone Health and the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce, to enthusiastically endorse trails.

"They were all saying, 'This is good for the life of the community.' It's far enough along now that I don't think it's going to go away," she said.

Walker said Tussing was so good at what she did because she combined the passion of an avid bicyclist with the savvy of a politician. The Planning Department hopes to hire a new alternate-modes coordinator in the fiscal year that starts July 1, Walker said, but everyone realizes how hard it will be to replace Tussing.

"Darlene's got so much knowledge and so much historic information about so many things," he said.

He said he will probably call her more than a few times in the coming years to seek advice and tap her institutional memory.

"I'm glad she's my friend," he said.

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I cover the city of Billings.