HOULTON, Maine — Last July, AJ Boyce and Clayton Willigar stopped by Shiretown Taxi in Houlton to rent a space for their construction workers to detail cars, giving their employees more hours during COVID-19.
By the time the two left that day, Boyce had purchased the taxi business along with a couple vehicles and the buildings. Today, the taxi company has an 11-vehicle fleet and drivers are making 65-to-70 daily round-trip runs all over the state.
With public transportation practically nonexistent in rural areas of Maine, the service this taxi company provides is crucial to those trying to reach medical appointments or even get groceries.
“There is still room to expand,” said Willigar. “Our goal is to do as much as we can in The County. We don’t see why we can’t double our fleet in the next year.”
Shiretown Taxi’s license was approved for its newest taxi in a recent Houlton Town Council meeting, with an endorsement from Houlton Police Chief Tim DeLuca. And town Councilor Susan Tortello said the new taxi company was an asset to the town.
Boyce and Willigar have worked in transportation most of their careers, Boyce said. But this time is different.
“We finally found something we enjoy,” Willigar said, laughing.
With one vehicle dedicated to local riders for everything from grocery store runs to picking up takeout food orders in the area, the two said they appreciate their local customers.
An agreement with medical transporter, Modivcare, keeps the other 10 vehicles busy driving patients from one end of the state to the other for things such as dialysis, doctors appointments and hospital discharges. A patient living in the southern part of the state, for example, could be in a Fort Kent hospital and a Shiretown Taxi driver would take the patient home.
For many people, getting to medical appointments is a growing concern due to the lack of public transportation in rural areas. In fact, nearly 30 percent of missed healthcare appointments are related to a lack of transportation, according to patient access platform provider SCI Solutions.
Modivcare, one of many patient transportation providers around the country, is helping to ease that burden with about 28 million paid trips annually.
In addition to a working relationship with Modivcare, Shiretown Taxi also provides rides for veterans through the Togus Veterans Association. They are also on 24-hour call for Houlton Regional Hospital emergency patients needing a ride home.
“We have about eight-to-10 riders a week from the hospital,” Willigar said, adding that they have eight different car seats for children.
Most rides are a flat fee. For local in-town rides, say from the library to Walmart, it’s $10 one-way. Beyond that locally, it’s $2 a mile. A trip to Presque Isle runs $100.
For the health care-related rides, Modivcare pays Shiretown Taxi, and about 95 percent of the time, MaineCare covers the fare for riders, Willigar said.
All drivers are trained in defensive driving, CPR and first aid and all taxis are equipped with extensive first aid kits designed for emergencies. And even before they are hired, Houlton Police Chief Tim DeLuca runs an extensive background check on potential workers.
Safety for riders and drivers is critical, according to Willigar, who credits the Houlton Police Department for all their help in keeping the taxi company in compliance with the town ordinance regarding background checks on drivers.
Driver pay starts at $18 per hour and the company is always looking for good, reliable, honest workers, he said.
The taxi company has 18 employees with one dedicated to detailing, cleaning and sanitizing the vehicles and door handles when drivers come back in from a fare. Drivers also will wear masks if customers request it.
“With two-to-three more vehicles and drivers, we could have Aroostook covered for Modivcare and then we could move [into] south and Down East,” Willigar said.