Theresa White, 86, still drives herself around town.

“Amazing, right?” she said.

But White, who lives in Vassalboro and volunteers both at the local food pantry and the Methodist church, said she sees a lot of people either unable to drive or without cars of their own.

“I know that there’s a need for some people,” she said. “If they had a contact, it might be easier for them to get where they need to go.”

Betty and Don O’Keefe, for example, are 88 and 90, respectively. They rely on their children to get to doctors’ appointments and the grocery store, they said in an interview at their home on Priest Hill Road. While the arrangement is convenient for them, they said it would be nice to have another option available.

As soon as this summer, another option may be available for the O’Keefes and other residents of the two towns.


Vassalboro and China, both small central Maine towns of about 4,300 each, are aging along with the state, so each has formed committees to find solutions to the myriad problems aging communities are facing. One of Vassalboro’s first initiatives is to bring a public transportation service to the largely rural towns.

The Friends Advocating for Vassalboro’s Older Residents — or the FAVOR committee —determined through a survey that transportation was one of the most important needs of residents. After looking at its options, the committee chose to meet that need through the Kennebec Explorer transit system run by the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, a nonprofit that provides social services throughout Kennebec and Somerset counties.

The Kennebec Explorer program serves people throughout the Waterville and Augusta areas, as well as Skowhegan, said Jim Wood, director of transportation for the nonprofit organization.

“I think what we’re seeing throughout Maine is an aging population of people who want to stay in their homes, who want to stay independent, but have to face that awful choice of not being able to operate their car anymore,” Wood said during a Vassalboro budget committee meeting. “This will give them the ability” to do things such as shopping for groceries and getting to appointments on their own.

China Town Manager Dan L’Heureux also said that public transportation “needs to be there” as the population ages.

“(People would) rather not move from here, and they won’t have to move from here if we can supply them with transportation needs,” he said.


The Kennebec Explorer bus is open to everyone in the general public and is funded mostly through federal transit grants, but it also receives some state funding and local support. Riders in Vassalboro and China would pay $1.50.

The targeted budget for this addition to the program is $400,000, Wood said.

China approved $1,545 for the program at its annual Town Meeting. Vassalboro would have to commit $1,350. The budget committee has yet to make its recommendation, Town Manager Mary Sabins said.

While there seems to be support for the program in Vassalboro, some residents are opposed to adding another service to what they see as an already heavy tax burden.

The FAVOR committee handed out surveys about the idea at the polls during the November presidential election and received 65 responses, most of which came from people between the ages of 36 and 69.

While the vast majority of people said their primary means of transportation is a personal car, 12 — or 18.5 percent — said they had to rely on a friend, relative or neighbor.


Most people, by a 45-20 count, said there was support in the town for a bus service. The survey allowed people to comment on the idea, and some said that there seemed to be a need, especially as people age.

Others, however, said there wasn’t enough support because people wouldn’t want to increase their taxes to subsidize the service.

The survey also asked if people would support an increase in property taxes to provide a transportation service in Vassalboro. The majority said no, 46-24.

“We cannot keep saddling working families with more and more taxes to pay for social programs. We need to find a more fair way to fund these programs,” one response read.

“Are you out of your foolish mind?” read another. “We are devaluated and taxed to death.”

Some people, however, said they would support an increase “for the greater good of the community.”


In a section for additional comments, some acknowledged that they may need the service in the future, so they supported it.

If the request for support is approved by the budget committee and then the town on June 5, the buses could be available in the area by July, Sabins said.

“I’m hoping that the townspeople will think it will be a worthwhile endeavor,” she said. The program, while especially helpful for seniors, is not geared just for them, she added, so it could benefit a variety of people in town.

Explorer transportation director Wood said in an interview, “We’ve been getting a lot of requests from the more rural areas in our region.”

Wood said the buses would use a demand-response model in those areas, as opposed to establishing fixed routes as it does in the city centers.

The buses would travel through the towns on certain days, Wood said, and residents would call ahead of time with their desired destination and availability. As the schedule developed, he said they would call people back with a pickup time.


The program will evolve based on consumer demand, he said. Right now they are focusing on providing access to places inside the towns or of high interest, like grocery stores in China or Waterville. They are keeping possibilities like long-term connections into Augusta in mind though, he said.

Wood said the program has had great success since it first started in 2011, when it provided 44,000 rides per year. By fiscal year 2016, the program had more than doubled, providing 98,000 rides.

The nonprofit’s other service, a van transportation program that provides rides to medical offices for those who fall under certain income guidelines, has also had great success, he said, but the transportation department is working to make clear that the Kennebec Explorer is a separate program.

“We’re working very hard to break away from the stigmas attached to that,” Wood said, adding that they chose the name Kennebec Explorer to mimic other Maine transportation systems, like the Mountain Explorer.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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