Motorists beware.

After wear and tear from hundreds of millions of vehicles over more than a half-century, a much-needed refurbishment of the Walt Whitman Bridge will begin next week.

Redecking the region's busiest toll bridge will close lanes, one at a time, for 21/2 years, according to the Delaware River Port Authority, which operates the span.

That means onerous traffic delays, especially in rush hours, weekends during the Shore season, and when multiple events are scheduled at the South Philadelphia sports complex.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation will use electronic signs on I-76 and I-95 to warn motorists of heavy traffic and to recommend alternate crossings. Its New Jersey counterpart also will post travel advice along roads leading to the Walt Whitman.

News may even pop up on scoreboards at Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park, officials said.

The $139 million project, to begin next Friday, will reduce the number of lanes from seven to six and is expected to be completed in spring 2014. It is necessary to extend the life of the bridge, according to the DRPA, which also operates the Ben Franklin, Commodore Barry, and Betsy Ross Bridges, as well as PATCO, the Philadelphia Cruise Terminal, and the RiverLink Ferry.

Preparations will require temporary lane closures Monday night through Tuesday morning and again Wednesday night through Thursday morning, said DRPA spokesman Ed Kasuba.

"It's going to be occasionally slow," Kasuba said. "We're doing our best."

At 5 a.m. next Friday, the far-right eastbound lane will be shut down for what is expected to be five months. The redecking will move over one lane every five months.

"As is the case with all construction projects, everything is weather-dependent," Kasuba added.

The board of the bistate DRPA last year awarded a $128 million construction contract for the project to American Bridge Co. of Coraopolis, Pa. An additional $11.7 million will go to Urban Engineers Inc./URS Corp. of Philadelphia to monitor the construction.

Thousands of people attended the Walt Whitman's opening ceremony May 15, 1957. By 12:01 a.m. the next day, vehicles were lined up bumper to bumper to be among the first to drive across. More than 3,000 made the trip in the first hour.

Today, at least 100,000 vehicles travel the Walt Whitman daily - which is why transportation officials are working with the DRPA during the upgrading process.

"Coming in and out of the sports complex can pose a problem," said Charles Metzger, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania transportation agency. "We get a schedule of events, and plan accordingly, especially when there are multiple events."

To aid frustrated motorists, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have joined more than 30 states in offering traffic information through 511 systems. Motorists can phone 511 for updates or go to 511nj.org or www.511pa.com for information and real-time camera views of key roads.

Status reports also are available at www.deckthewalt.com and on WPBN-AM (530).

"From an NJDot perspective, the work on the eastbound side of the bridge is not expected to have much impact on our highways. But once the work switches to the westbound side, we will work with DRPA to formulate an official traffic-operations plan to minimize congestion and delays on New Jersey's highways," said Tim Greeley, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Transportation.

The Walt Whitman carries about 40 million vehicles a year and is the second oldest of the DRPA bridges, behind the Ben Franklin, which opened in 1926. The long-planned work is being paid for with toll increases. The first went into effect in September 2008, when the price of a crossing for an auto was raised a dollar to $4. The second increase, to $5, took effect July 1.

The construction will exchange the steel decking and asphalt paving for a modern grid deck partially filled with lightweight concrete. Electrical and communication cables and drainage structures also will be replaced.

The upgrade will be more expensive than the bridge was. The cost of construction of the 11,981-foot span was $86.9 million.

The work "is starting," Kasuba said, "and it's going to be with us for a while."

or ecolimore@phillynews.com.