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The median along parts of I-76 in Philadelphia presents a flood danger, and even with traffic reduced because of the pandemic, fixing it is likely to cause snarls along the Schuylkill Expressway for the rest of the calendar year.

PennDOT announced last week that a mile of westbound 76 along the river in University City would be reduced to one lane. Running from the University Avenue to 30th Street exits, the 24-hour lane restriction started on Monday and is set to remain through the end of 2020.

Sorry to commuters who travel through West Philly, because there’s more.

The I-76 South Street on-ramp will remain closed for the next month and a half. And for the next week, that stretch reduced to one lane eastbound starting at 7 p.m., and closed completely in both directions overnight.

A round-the-clock shutdown of the westbound lane is necessary because workers will be replacing the road’s entire middle divider, according to PennDOT spokesperson Brad Rudolph.

What’s there now is apparently split into two parts, Rudolph explained, which encourages water to pool between them. A single-piece barrier should reduce flooding, lessening the chance of dangerous accidents. Nationwide, more than 3,400 people are killed annually and over 350k injured in crashes during rainfall, per the Federal Highway Administration.

The good news, kind of: since construction is happening now, you won’t have to deal with it later — and traffic is already lower.

Instead of the usual 130k daily riders, Rudolph said, traffic along that stretch of I-76 is down 18%.

“Limited events at the stadium complex and alternate schedules for commuters and schools due to the pandemic was a major factor in deciding how the department proceeded with the completion of the project,” Rudolph said.

The median replacement is just the latest piece of a long construction project on the University City section of the expressway.

It’s been almost a year and a half since crews began ripping apart the roadway to fix the viaduct, which is the official term for the 6,120-foot elevated highway that carries cars along the riverbank between Arch and South streets.

“Replacing the median barrier now saves the department from issuing a separate contract to replace the barrier at a later time,” Rudolph added, “which would impact travelers during another construction season.”

Meanwhile, for Philly drivers, it feels like another one of 2020’s cruel jokes.

When all’s said and done, the UCity part of the highway will have a repaired concrete deck, and new piers, columns, concrete overlay and drainage system. The expected completion date for the project was fall 2020, but it didn’t happen because coronavirus.

The University City wasn’t on deck for replacement in PennDOT’s original plans. But while crews worked on other aspects of the viaduct, Rudolph said, they realized it was in urgent need of a tune-up.

Why’s it gonna take four months to replace one mile of median? Turns out it’s a whole thing. First crews need to mill the entire deck and perform hydro-demolition to remove the steel supports that kept the median in place.

Then they’ve got to reconstruct a whole new median, secure that to the highway’s deck and reinforce that with steel — all in tiny sections until it’s complete.

So get ready for a bottlenecked 76 between 30th Street Station and University Avenue for the rest of the year.

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...