Our greater Metro region includes, according to a public-interest organization's "urban stress test," the 12th best city and the 12th worst city among 184 U.S. municipalities.

The 12th worst, according to the Washington-based Zero Population Growth (ZPG) organization, is Baltimore. And the 12th best -- sound the trumpets, maestro! -- is Alexandria.

Washington is about halfway between its two neighbors in the livability index.

Susan Webster, ZPG executive director, said her group checked indices of population pressures on the land, water, air, natural resources, public health and the economy to come up with its ratings.

The test, she said, "illustrates in graphic terms the reality of our nation's population problem . . . and the short-sightedness of our government's failure to adopt a national population policy."

On a scale of 1 (the best) to 5 (the worst), the best overall rating of 1.8 went to Fargo, N.D., population 62,596, which lacks problems of crowding, education, crime, air pollution or hazardous wastes and has -- predictably -- easy commuting.

It also has fierce winter weather, ZPG noted.

Alexandria, population 104,276, rated a 2.1 score.

No really big city rated among the top 14 with grades 2.2 or better. Only three cities with more than 500,000 population rated at least 3.0, and our own Washington rated a high 3.1.

Alexandria, according to ZPG, scored best in education and sewage capacity, and had no "danger" or worse scores (its lowest ratings, of 3, were population change, violent crime and air quality). Washington got absolutely rock-bottom "red zone" ratings of 5 for population change, crowding and violent crime; ratings of 3 for education, individual economics, births and air quality; and high marks for water, sewage capacity and the lack of hazardous wastes.

And Baltimore was down in ZPG's pits with an overall 4.0 rating (but still was well ahead of Miami's bottom-rated 4.6 and Los Angeles' 4.3). Our Maryland neighbor earned "red zone" 5 ratings in education, violent crime, individual economics and air pollution and "danger" 4 ratings in population change, community economics, hazardous wastes and water, and some bleak words about the pollution of its harbor.