It was a waiting game yesterday for the sandmen.

From Howard to Prince William counties and around the Capital Beltway, transportation crews spent a day of anticipation, waiting for full-fledged snowflakes as their signal to start spreading salt and sand across state and county roads and bridges. Just before rush hour, most crews were in place around the region, ready for a one- to six-inch snowfall that forecasters said wouldn't come until bedtime.

"It's like the Defense Department," said Marianne Pastor, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation. "You spend a lot of money hoping something doesn't happen."

National weather forecasters predicted late last night that no more than an inch of snow would fall in this area by about 7 a.m. However they said the overnight snow would be followed by snow showers, which might be heavy.

In addition, forecaster Scott Prosise said winds were expected to range from 25 to 40 miles an hour, bringing wind chills of near zero.

Prosise said a storm coming from the Midwest that had earlier been expected to bring more snow overnight had weakened. It had been replaced as the area's meteorological menace by a storm headed north along the Atlantic Coast, which was expected to cause this morning's snow showers.

As temperatures dipped below freezing around daybreak, he said, he expected icy spots to form on some roads.

Throughout yesterday, temperatures hovered between 32 and 35 degrees, cold enough to frost windows yet warm enough to melt the sleet that fell intermittently. For many travelers, the day was more a nuisance than a hazard. No major problems were reported with Metro, the power companies or at any of the area airports.

But by 4:30 p.m., as rush hour began in earnest, temperatures in northwest Montgomery County dipped below freezing. Motorists had to maneuver slippery roads on their way home; forecasters began gaining confidence in their predictions.

Transportation officials across the area looked out their office windows yesterday and dispatched road crews beginning about noon. The last winter storm, which hit Nov. 11, began as a flurry and snowballed into an 11.5-inch storm. No one, they said, wanted to be caught unawares this time.

In the District, officials declared a "partial mobilization" of snow removal crews, making 32 of 87 snow trucks available for plowing and road maintenance. District officials planned to staff the city's snow command all night, said George Schoene, traffic engineer for the Department of Public Works. But at 4 p.m., he laughed at the idea of a paralyzing snowfall. "What snow? I only see a little out my window now," Schoene said.

The Metro subway system for the region was placed in "an alert stage," Metro spokeswoman Marilyn Dicus said. Trains will run all night to keep outdoor sections of track clear of snow and ice and employes were told to be ready for early calls, she said. Metro is now in the process of installing heating elements along the third rail, the system's power rail, but is still a "long way" from completing the job, she said.

In Northern Virginia yesterday afternoon, highway crews were on full alert. All essential personnel were called into work and private snow plow contractors were told their services might be required during the night, road officials said. "There's not too much more we can do," said Pastor. "It's very confusing. Weather forecasting is not an exact science."

In Maryland, the state highway administration was girding for severe weather with 119 pieces of snow-removal equipment and 223 maintenance workers. Prince George's County, which caught the brunt of the November storm, yesterday sent out of the first of 45 plows out on its road by 7:30 a.m. By 11 a.m., 65 other vehicles were loaded with salt and ready to roll. County officials estimated 225 workers would be available for snow removal this time.

"Everybody has been here all day. If they have to stay here all night, that's a problem," said Sylvester Helminiak, associate director of the Prince George's County office of highway maintenance.

Transportation officials in the most far-flung suburbs -- Howard County in Maryland and Prince William in Virginia -- used the forecasters' information on strength and location of the storm as advice. The Manassas District of the Virginia Department of Highways sent a road crew home yesterday at noon, after a short four-hour shift, to get ready for some night work. By 8 p.m. yesterday, 50 crew members were supposed to call in for a weather update and instructions, road officials said.

In Howard County, which is predicted to receive the greatest amount of snow in its rural areas, 100 road workers ended their regular workshift at 4 p.m. only to be told to go home and wait for a call to return later that night. "I hope it's less {than the six inches predicted} but I have to listen to the National Weather Service," said Granville W. Wehland, chief of the county's Bureau of Highways.

Montgomery County officials listened to weather forecasters until about noon yesterday. Then, county road officials climbed into some cars and trucks and started doing their own research. "We've stopped listening to the forecasters and doing some of our own observation," said Robert McGarry, transportation director. "They're still talking about the one Nov. 11 . . . . I don't try to save a few bucks on overtime when there's snow involved."

Potomac Electric Power Co. officials reported no problems yesterday with the sleet and rain and said they did not plan to have daytime crews work late. The night shift, which begins at midnight, was expected to be bolstered with extra workers, they said.Staff writers John Ward Anderson, Alice Digilio, Retha Hill and Lisa Leff contributed to this report.