AUGUSTA — The United Bikers of Maine Toy Run is hitting the road this weekend.
The charitable ride that provides thousands of toys to needy children will follow a new route this year — traveling on residential streets through Augusta — after a double fatality on Interstate 95 that killed two riders in last year’s run.
The ride, expected to bring more than 1,000 toy-toting bikers to the area Sunday, means streets the group will travel on their way to the Windsor Fairgrounds will be closed to other traffic during the parade of motorcyclists. It’s expected to take place starting about 11:30 a.m.
Riders will gather at the Augusta Civic Center, leave the parking lot from the southern exit to cross Civic Center Drive and go up Townsend Road until it reaches Northern Avenue in a “T” intersection. From there, they will turn left onto Northern Avenue, continue as that becomes West River Road, then go out to Route 3, where they will turn right and head toward Windsor and gather at the Windsor Fairgrounds.
The route is one both Augusta police and United Bikers of Maine officials think will be safer than the route used last year, which included Interstate 95.
Two motorcyclists participating in the ride last year — Jamie Gross of Belmont; and Aaron White-Sevigny of Windsor — were killed, and four other people were injured, when a pickup truck and multiple motorcycles collided on the short stretch of Interstate 95 between exits 112 and 113.
Sandy Lyle, former president of United Bikers of Maine and chairperson of the group’s 37th annual Toy Run, said the route was changed to avoid a repeat of last year’s tragic accident.
“We’re very seriously trying to avoid the situation that happened last year,” Lyle said. “We don’t want any more fatalities or injuries. We want to be as safe as we can.
“It’s a logical route to keep us off the freeway and still achieve the goals we need to achieve,” he added, “and block traffic as little as possible.”
Lyle, of Lincolnville, said when he met recently with Augusta police, he was prepared to suggest the new route — only to find out they already had decided to make that change.
Lt. Vicente Morris, commander of the patrol division in Augusta, said the new route should be safer, because the speeds will be slower and traffic will be easier to control than it was on Interstate 95.
“We just figured it would be a safer path of travel,” he said. “We want to ensure a safe route.”
The roads the group will travel will be closed to traffic in both directions while the motorcyclists are using them. Morris said that may take about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on how many riders there are.
Civic Center Drive will be closed temporarily at its intersection with Townsend Road to allow the bikers to cross. Officers, Morris said, will be posted at nearly every intersection between Civic Center Drive and Route 3.
The additional police staff time, Morris noted, will be paid for by the organizers of the run, not Augusta taxpayers.
Lyle said that last year well over 1,000 riders took part in the run, but he’s not sure how many to expect this year. He said some riders might go directly to the fairgrounds rather than meet up at the Civic Center for the group ride.
“I don’t know what effect last year’s accident will have on attendance,” Lyle said. “We’re hoping, because of the route change, we’ll still have quite a large attendance. But some people may forgo the toy run parade and wind up directly at the fairgrounds instead.”
Activities at the fairgrounds include motorcycle rodeo competitions in which riders demonstrate their skills, speakers — including politicians — and vendors of food, clothing and other items.
The highlight will be the collection of toys, which will be amassed in the fair’s bingo building.
Each year the event brings in thousands of toys for needy children of all ages. Once the toys are collected, Lyle said, they are distributed in each of Maine’s 16 counties, as well as its tribal nations. In each county an organization, such as a church or agency, is chosen to distribute the toys, which Lyle said helps ensure the toys will go to needy children in Maine.
“So many of these bikers, they grew up as those kids (who didn’t get Christmas presents), so they don’t want to see that continue,” he said. “They want the less-fortunate kids to have something.”
Morris said police went door-to-door in the heavily residential Townsend Road area, where message boards also warn the road will be closed Sunday morning around 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., to inform residents about the road being closed as part of the new toy run route.
“We really did what we could to educate the public on the new parade route,” Morris said, “to help eliminate any inconveniences it places on residents.”
Lyle said some disruption is unavoidable when such a large group gets together, but he urged residents affected by the riders coming through Augusta to keep in mind the children who’ll benefit from the event.
“Please, understand why we’re doing this, and remember that it’s a celebration of what can be for some kids,” he said. “We apologize if some people feel offended by the noise or being slowed down in their travels.
“Obviously there is going to be some traffic that is disturbed,” Lyle added, “but we’re also hoping (the group ride) calls attention to the families that need the assistance.”
Bikers ride Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015 out of the Augusta Civic Center to the Windsor Fairgrounds during the 34th Annual Toy Run. Thousands of motorcyclists participated in the trek to donate toys for children. (Photo by Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal)