America's infrastructure of roads, bridges, water and sewer systems and other basic facilities has been long neglected. The resulting decay is rapidly approaching crisis proportions and the cost of repair and replacement could run into hundreds of billions of dollars.

The collapse of two bridges in Tennessee in April killed nine people and brought into sharp focus the growing seriousness of the problem. Hearings being held in Congress are painting an increasingly bleak picture.One official described it in medical terms, comparing the country to a patient who keeps denying he has a disease, while the illness gets worse and the cost of treatment soars.

In the next decade, more than a million miles of federal highways will require resurfacing, more than 477,000 bridges will need major repairs, thousands of communities lack modern sewage treatment plants, and public housing is disappearing so fast that 19 million people may be homeless by the fast-approaching end of the century.

Utah is not immune to any of these problems. The state's bridges, roads, public housing, and water and sewer systems all face urgent problems, although the decay may not be as critical in some ways. Inspection programs are better than in many hard-pressed states.

For example, Congress says the bridge inspection program nationally is in "chaotic" condition and even when problems are identified, repairs often are haphazardly administered.

Of Utah's 2,463 bridges, more than 330 are classified as "deficient," and of those, 230 should be replaced. Many bridges are on the interstate system and are approaching 30 years of age in places - the lifetime limit for bridge decks.

All states are beginning to realize the magnitude of the job facing them and are starting to scramble. The hard fact is, however, that the challenge will cost far more than available state and federal funds.

At a time when the federal budget deficit is a serious problem, the country is faced with finding hundreds of billions more just to keep the nation's absolutely vital infrastructure from falling apart.

Somewhere along the way - and very soon - this truth must be dealt with. The answers are going to require more taxes, more user fees, and perhaps even issuing some form of national bonds to cover the necessary expenses.

Ignoring the problem is no longer an option. As systems break down and bridges start to collapse, the nation must react - no matter how much it costs.