The snowfall for the Twin Cities was on the lighter side of what was forecast, but the morning commute was nevertheless shaping up to be a long, difficult and accident marred ordeal.

Around 6:30 a.m., a crash involving a semi shut down eastbound Interstate 494 at Nicollet Ave., for nearly an hour.  It had reopened by 7:20 a.m., although the left lane remained closed for a short while longer, the Minnesota Department of Transportation said.

All over the metro area, vehicles were spinning out, smacking into retaining walls and guard rails -- or other vehicles -- and slipping into ditches.

By 6:30 a.m., 4.7 inches of snow had fallen at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, while Chanhassen recorded 4.2 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

Metro Transit said at 6:45 a.m. that 19 percent of buses were running behind schedule, with an average delay of four minutes.

Snowplows were out, with Hennepin County annoucing that 70 snowplow drivers began work at 2 a.m.

The snow began Monday night and is expected to taper after noon on Tuesday.

Fairmont, along Interstate I-90 southwest of the Twin Cities, had 8½ inches of snow by 8:30 p.m., according to the National Weather Service. By late Monday night, Owatonna and Winnebago had surpassed 6 inches.

The State Patrol reported 88 crashes between 1 and 8:45 p.m. Monday. Eight of those involved injuries but no fatalities. Another 69 vehicles were off the road or stalled on icy roadways, largely in the southern part of the state.

The heaviest bands of snow were in the southeast, said Bill Borghoff, a senior forecaster with the National Weather Service in Chanhassen.

The evening commute was largely spared in the Twin Cities, with snowfall not hitting downtown Minneapolis until about 8 p.m. 

A winter storm warning remains in effect until 6 p.m. Tuesday, said the Weather Service. By the time snow stops falling on Tuesday, 4 to 8 inches could pile up in the Twin Cities, with more to the south and lesser amounts to the north, Borghoff said.

In St. Cloud, just 65 miles northwest of Minneapolis, just more than one inch of snow is forecast, vs. 9.4 inches predicted in Mankato.

Rush-hour snowfalls create hazards and headaches, but “we’ll clean up whatever Mother Nature dishes us,” said Scott McBride, a metro district engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “Our … crews are ready for this.”

As if anticipating curious minds, the city of Minneapolis said just before the evening commute that it would hold off declaring a snow emergency, which alerts motorists to get their vehicles out of the way of plows or risk ticketing and towing.

“City crews will be out plowing and treating the streets to keep them drivable” all the way into Tuesday, a statement from the city said.

St. Paul said that a snow emergency is likely if snow amounts are greater than 3 inches.

Last year, snowfall also blanketed the Twin Cities just after Christmas, where the highest reported totals barely reached 6 inches. Minneapolis and St. Paul declared snow emergencies Dec. 27, but most roads were cleared that afternoon.

Flight cancellations

Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was forced to cancel a handful of flights due to arrive from Midwestern airports Tuesday morning.

MnDOT crews were out pre-treating roads on Monday, while preparing to dispatch an armada of more than 800 plows.

Drivers will work 12-hour shifts to clear 12,000 miles of roadway, but with snow predicted to fall at 1 to 2 inches per hour, “motorists will see snow- and ice-covered roads even though we are out there in full force,” McBride said.

This might, however, be as good a time as any for the season’s first winter wallop.

Traffic levels are lighter than normal due to the holiday season, and with the snow coming in two waves, MnDOT should find it easier to keep up. To that end, McBride reminded motorists to give plows a wide berth.

“A fully loaded plow weighs 15 times what the average vehicle weighs,” he said. “Give them room to work.”

The State Patrol also is ready to work. On a normal day, troopers respond to about 75 crashes statewide. With treacherous conditions expected over the next two days, that number might rise to as high as 800.

“We are anticipating a very high call volume,” said patrol spokeswoman Lt. Tiffani Nielson.

Officials with the state Department of Public Safety repeated the usual advice to motorists: buckle up, slow down, or just hunker down and wait for conditions to improve.

For drivers who venture out and have an accident, the advice was simple: “Stay in your vehicle and call 911.”

Help will come, Nielson said, but it might take a bit longer than usual.

Timing spares schools

Although the snow’s timing means no school closings or delays during this holiday break, cities were beginning to declare snow emergencies.

West St. Paul and Crystal were among the first, warning residents to get their vehicles off the streets to make room for plows.

The city of Bloomington declared a snow emergency in effect as of Monday afternoon.

Most cities have municipal websites noting when they have declared snow emergencies and providing details for those wishing to avoid a tow.

The NWS office in Chanhassen said in a statement that gusty winds in southern and eastern Minnesota should reach 25 to 30 miles per hour, causing blowing and drifting snow.

Except for a few inches of snow on Saturday, this season has been virtually snow-free, with temperatures well above average. Even this week’s looming storm is expected to do little to get the state back closer to average for snowfall.