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The Utah Transit Authority is sending 20 new buses to Atlanta to help the city handle its Summer Olympics traffic headaches in July and August.

Contract drivers on Friday began motoring the local fleet east over interstate highways. The journey is a 1,933-mile trip one way."Obviously we have a reason for doing it," said UTA director John Pingree, who explained the motivation is rooted at least partly in the hope that Atlanta might return the favor in 2002, when Utah hosts the Winter Games.

UTA is one of several transit agencies nationwide lending buses for the Summer Games under a federal grant that pays for transport to and from Georgia.

But like many participating agencies, UTA has scaled back what it originally said its donation would be. The authority last year talked about sending 63 buses.

"We just decided we really couldn't spare that many," said Bill Barnes, a UTA spokesman.

Laura Gillig, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), said the agency is confident nonetheless it will reach its goal of receiving 1,000 loaners.

"We'll definitely have the number to do the job," said Gillig, explaining that the borrowed fleet from dozens of other cities will augment the 700 buses MARTA usually runs in the Atlanta area.

She said the Salt Lake buses will be used to and from park-and-ride lots on the perimeter of central Atlanta, shuttling visitors and residents in and out of what is likely to be an extremely congested Games venue area downtown.

"This will be by far the most congested Olympics ever," said Gillig, noting that most events will take place in an area that is about three miles across.

The metropolitan Atlanta area, population 3 million, is expecting 2 million visitors during the 17-day event. Gillig said on any given day of the Olympics some 4 million people will be in Atlanta.

Barnes said mileage logged to and from Georgia - and during the Games - is unlikely to affect the life of the UTA buses, which locally travel as many as 300 miles per day over the course of the 12 years a UTA vehicle typically lasts.

Pingree said the agency is sending brand-new buses because that's what the Federal Transit Administration requested. He said the loan will not affect local service because shuttles used for wintertime ski service will be placed on routes that would be served by the Atlanta-bound buses.

The buses on their way to Georgia are air-conditioned models recently shipped to Utah from their northern California manufacturer. Their price to UTA was about $220,000 apiece, said Pingree.

A contract between UTA and MARTA guarantees they will be returned in the same condition in which they were dispatched.