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With Milstein out as Thruway chief, Cuomo should pick a leader with real expertise

Howard Milstein was always an odd choice as chairman of the New York State Thruway Authority. Does the billionaire New York City banker and real estate developer even drive on it?

In any case, his recently announced – and artfully timed – resignation offers Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo the chance to put the authority under the administration of an upstater – someone for whom the Thruway is perhaps more than a rumor.

The need for strong leadership has become obvious, as the authority reeled in the face of November’s massive lake-effect storm and as it confronts a $39 million budget deficit. Both suggest the need for a change at the top.

There is a hoary Albany tradition of installing unqualified people to lead important public authorities. It’s happened in the past at the New York Power Authority and it appears to have happened with Milstein’s appointment to the Thruway Authority. What did he know about managing an enterprise as unwieldy and politically driven as the Thruway Authority?

Maybe the agency would have performed poorly during the storm, anyway, and maybe the budget deficit was unrelated to his stewardship of the authority.

Today that doesn’t matter. Today, the state has the opportunity to ensure that New Yorkers don’t have to wonder if the leader’s inexperience will help produce a disaster on the highway.

None of that came up last week, when Thruway directors met for their annual budget-passing session. It was just another day on the job – business as usual even though business has been anything but.

New Yorkers today are threatened with a toll increase on the Thruway, and potentially a huge one, if that revenue is needed to help fund construction of the ongoing $4 billion replacement of the Hudson Valley’s aging Tappan Zee Bridge. That looming toll hike may be avoidable if the state devotes part of its $4.8 billion budget surplus toward shoring up the authority.

But it will also be necessary, before throwing money at the authority, to ensure that it has capable, even expert, leadership going forward. This job can’t be the equivalent of rewarding a well-heeled donor to a president with an ambassadorship. The new boss needs to know this territory.

Other factors beyond Milstein’s abilities were at work during the November storm and its aftermath. It was, after all, a storm of historic proportions and it is impossible to expect every motorist will make wise travel choices.

Still, the authority’s performance has drawn justifiable criticism. This is the Northeast, and Western New York is prone to periodic snow-borne misery. There is no reason that plans shouldn’t be in place to deal with storms in a more organized fashion.

Doing that begins with strong leadership. We wish Milstein well and note that with extra time on his hands, he may finally be able to begin developing his dormant properties in downtown Niagara Falls.

It is now up to Cuomo to find a successor who has been in the trenches and who knows what to do when an emergency strikes, as it surely will again. Upstate is a good place to start looking.