Tens of thousands of working-class rural Mainers need to get from point A to point B. Sometimes for work, sometimes for medical appointments, sometimes for groceries. If you don’t have a car, what do you do? Pine and Roses’ Coral Howe examines the alternatives and asks the question: Dude, Where’s My Car (Repair Programs)? 

A car is a necessity, especially in rural Maine. Grocery stores, jobs, day care centers, and schools are usually not within walking distance. Ideally, you’d want your own car. However, owning a car is financially debilitating. On top of registration, insurance, gas, and maintenance, your car will need major repairs. What assistance is available when you need a repair but can’t afford it or can’t do it yourself?

There are transportation programs scattered throughout the state, but you have to meet eligibility guidelines. For example, you might need proof of disability, age, family size, household income, and residency. Some require you to qualify for MaineCare, the state’s bare-bones medical insurance program. And there’s only one program that outright identifies itself as a repair assistance program (ASPIRE). But you only qualify for ASPIRE if you receive TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), and car repairs only get funded if they present a barrier to you becoming employed. Most of these programs have waitlists and, even if it turns out that you’re not eligible, it may take weeks or even months to hear a response to your application. Furthermore, if you don’t have internet access and have to apply by phone, you better be prepared for waiting periods of up to two hours to get through.

As it stands, here’s what the state of Maine has to offer. 

MaineCare Member Services, which relies on you contacting a transportation service yourself and then reimburses you for the costs accrued from getting to your medical appointment. You must contact them at least two days ahead of schedule. A friend or family member can also be reimbursed for transportation at a rate of $0.40 per mile. 

Maine public fixed or flex route transit systems (usually a bus or van) that operate on a schedule. Fares are reimbursed under certain circumstances. Sometimes, there is no fee, but if there is, you must prove that you are “low income” according to federal or state guidelines. 

The ASPIRE Program, which is specifically for people who receive TANF through DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services). The program can fund vehicle repairs, insurance, and public transportation, all with the goal of supporting employment. Usually, payment comes in the form of reimbursement. 

Maine Directions sign

The Office of Child and Family Services
offers transportation through Community Action Programs (CAPs) throughout the state (e. g., the Opportunity Alliance in South Portland, Community Concepts in Lewiston, etc.). These programs are often used by low-income individuals who don’t receive MaineCare or people who are under the care of DHHS. 

The Office of Aging and Disability Services does not receive direct funding for transportation, but does provide funding to transport certain individuals related to medical needs (if they aren’t covered by MaineCare). These funds may cover transportation to adult day care programs in the form of reimbursement to a family caregiver. Volunteer drivers receive reimbursements for the Meals on Wheels program. Other funds exist for church groups and other non-profit programs that do outreach to connect eligible people with transportation. 

Bus and ferry systems connecting adjacent towns to urban areas are also available in certain regions. The Maine DOT (Department of Transportation) also has a carpooling program that connects commuters to coordinate transportation.

[For more on Maine Life, read Maine’s Elderly and the Clawback of Working-class gains.]

All in all, this leaves few reliable transportation options for those who are not deemed “deserving” or holds them hostage to having enough money to pay up front and then waiting for reimbursements. And how timely are these reimbursements? Do they cover the full cost? Do people have to forego paying for other necessities while waiting? In other words, do these programs provide the necessary freedom of choice and flexibility?

Life happens. Plans get cancelled or altered. Employers change schedules. Medical providers cancel appointments. Weather delays travel. Waitlists build up. Emergencies arise. Even eligible people run into issues: some transportation programs will not help an elderly or disabled client get into their residence or up their driveway after they’ve been dropped off due to “liability issues.” How many discouraged people have slipped through the cracks as a result of the limitations placed on their mobility by the state? Depending on the mercy of a woefully inadequate system is burdensome. 

Having said all this, it’s important to keep in mind that many of these programs were won through communities and advocates attempting to fill a need. And, the people who work in these underfunded and overburdened services–from the people taking your calls to the drivers, mechanics, interpreters, and bus aids–should be proud of the job they do. We’d be even further up the creek were it not for their efforts. 

Of course, expanding public transportation is a top priority for socialists in Maine as part of the Green New Deal and in terms of meeting working-class people’s needs. But are there other tools in the socialist toolkit? 

[To read more by Coral Howe, check out Why did prisoners get a Covid-19 shot before me?]

As we brainstorm possible alternatives, we find ourselves wandering into the wild territory of “mutual aid.” Mutual aid differs from state or non-profit programs in major ways. Mutual aid programs are run by local volunteers, sometimes unpaid, without the usual hierarchy of a state program. People share power in decision-making and distribution of services, rather than only “donors” or services calling the shots. Mutual aid does not impose stringent requirements to “prove” your eligibility for critical services. Unlike typical transportation programs, a mutual aid program would remove the shame of sharing intimate details about your personal life with strangers to see if you qualify for a gas card at the local 7/11. Mutual aid programs rely on collaboration between community members to determine who is helped and to what extent, unlike state programs that operate from a top-down approach. This strengthens and empowers community members, promotes teamwork, and creates close bonds. Finally, mutual aid programs have the power to unify communities through education, participation, and cooperation.

But nothing happens automatically and any such mutual aid network means thinking through some tough questions. Is it possible for us to address needs more directly in our communities? Who in our communities is able or willing to lend a hand? What organizational structure would be developed? What would the decision-making process look like in a member-controlled, member-run community service program? How can we avoid the usual pitfalls of charity-type organizations and fill in the gaps created by other financial aid services? 

If we want our communities to prosper and the socialist movement to thrive, we must work together and be willing to address our necessities. Unfortunately, as things stand today, although owning a car is implicitly considered a luxury, it is, in fact, a necessity for freedom of mobility in large parts of Maine. When the government falls short, we can’t sit on our hands.

[What’s Pine and Roses? Learn more here, Mainers Want Pine and Roses.]