Where, why and how? The Auckland port debate heats up

On Monday Transport Minister Michael Wood and Auckland Mayor Phil Goff will join other guests at SkyCity Theatre in an NZ Herald Premium debate on the future of Auckland’s port. Here’s how that debate has been shaping up.

Sometime in the next few decades, most of the operations of the Auckland port on the Waitemata will have to move.

Those operations are not an efficient use of the most valuable land in the country, nor are they the most socially rewarding. They create traffic congestion and traffic safety risks. The pollution from shipping damages the harbour environmentally and restricts its recreational value.

Further, there are few obvious benefits to local commerce and negative economic consequences for other parts of the city and the region, including South Auckland, West Auckland, Northland and Waikato.

And as the city grows, the port will probably run out of land.

There’s widespread agreement on this. In 2019, Cabinet declared: “Ports of Auckland is not viable as the upper North Island’s key import port in the long term”.

Auckland mayor Phil Goff said last year: “Freeing up progressively the land occupied by the port would be great for Auckland”.

Similar views are also held by many in the freight and logistics industries and by the Auckland Chamber, Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, environmental and urban development groups. And, if the surveys are right, most Aucklanders.

But when should it move, and how, and where should it go? Those are the hard questions.

There is no obvious place a new port could go and no easy way to transfer operations to existing ports.

More than 20 studies have been done over the past 10 years. Four of the most recent are significant. They agree on the need to move the port, sometimein the next 10 to 30 years. There is little agreement on anything else.

1. Port Future Study

In 2015 Auckland Council convened a “consensus working group” with stakeholders representing all parties to the debate: local retail and manufacturing, the freight industry, shipping, the cruise industry, mana whenua, resource management and property experts.

Urban Auckland and Stop Stealing our Harbour were there: it was their success in the Environment Court, which stopped the port extending further into the harbour, that prompted then-mayor Len Brown to set up the working group. Generation Zero was there, and so was Ports of Auckland itself. They were all in the room.

The consensus working group was charged with producing recommendations on the future of Auckland’s port. It met for a year and published its findings, called the Port Future Study, in August 2016.

The key finding was that the port would “not be able to accommodate the long term freight task and cruise on the current footprint” and therefore would need to move sometime in the next 20-30 years (which now means the next 15-25 years).

Twenty-seven alternative sites were identified and two were shortlisted: the Manukau harbour and the Firth of Thames.

Neither Tauranga nor Northport, near Whangarei, were considered to provide a long-term solution, although that may be because the brief for the working group put the focus on sites for an Auckland port, not a regional strategy.

Importantly, the study declared that “economic, social, environmental and cultural” factors could all become “the triggers for a move”. Some other reports have focused only on economic factors.

The Port Future Study achieved a major breakthrough: consensus. Ports of Auckland itself signed up to the findings.

Nothing happened.

2. Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy (UNISCS report)

In 2018 the new Labour-led Government identified the core issue as freight logistics in the upper North Island. Further, it expressed support for the idea of a regional or national strategy.

A new independent working group, the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy (UNISCS) group, was set up. Its job: to review the likely demands of freight logistics in the coming decades and report on options for a new location for Auckland port operations.

UNISCS sought the views of close to 100 stakeholders, conducted its own computer modelling of logistics options, and reported back in late 2019. Its key findings were:

• Port operations were an inefficient use of the Waitematā waterfront land.

• Most freight should move to rail and the rail network should be upgraded to allow for this.

• A new inland hub should be established near Kumeu in the Auckland northwest.

• The Auckland port should be progressively closed, with the operations shifted to Northport and Tauranga.

• Congestion on Auckland motorways, including the harbour bridge, and on other roads, would be significantly addressed if most freight trucks were removed.

• Work should begin immediately.

The study noted Ports of Auckland was providing low or zero dividends to its owner, Auckland Council, and said the land could be devoted to mixed use, including commercial, residential and recreational.

UNISCS recommended that in time, 80 per cent of freight should be carried by rail. This would include car transportation. It also called for a rail link from Northport to the main trunk line to be built. The land is secured, the distance is only 21km, and it’s ready to go. It just needs budget.

The report argued that the central question of a logistics strategy was not which port goods arrive at, but how and where they are held, sorted and distributed from. Northwest Auckland, connected by rail and road to the north, south and city centre, was identified as the most central and efficient location for that process.

The Manukau harbour was rejected, on the advice of shipping and insurance stakeholders. The Firth of Thames was rejected on the basis of a range of environmental, economic and cultural factors.

The Government accepted the finding that the port would need to move. “It’s a question of when, not if,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

But although Infrastructure New Zealand recommended the report be “fully upgraded to a better business case”, the Government referred it to the Ministry of Transport for further analysis.

Meanwhile, using the Provincial Growth Fund, KiwiRail has upgraded the rail line to Whangarei so it can now carry containers.

3. Analysis of the UNISC report (Sapere report)

MoT commissioned that analysis from the Sapere Research Group, an economic consultancy.

Sapere reviewed the available information and reported back in June 2020. Its key findings were:

• The port had sufficient capacity on its current land for the next 30 years, after which, if it stayed, “a substantial amount of further land reclamation in the Waitematā Harbour will be necessary”.

• Traffic congestion on Auckland roads is “not a key factor in the decision to relocate the port operations”.

• Neither Northport nor Tauranga, “on their own”, will be able to handle the freight loads expected over the next 60 years. Even working together they would likely be “at or near capacity” at that point.

• A new island port in the Firth of Thames or Manukau harbour would have greater capacity well beyond 60 years.

• The Manukau option was preferred, largely because it’s close to the existing freight operations of south Auckland.

“There is a perception that conditions and the bar at the Manukau Harbour entrance could make access uncertain,” said the report. “A port planner with extensive international experience has confirmed there is no credible basis for this view.”

The Sapere report is now, effectively, the lead report before the Government on the future of the Auckland port and regional freight logistics.

4. A Port for the Future (Auckland Business Chamber report)

In July 2020, the Auckland Business Chamber produced its own “discussion document”: A Port for the Future.

It said the existing port will be able to keep functioning “for many years to come” but in time will have to move. It called this “a natural progression”.

The chamber argued for a “man-made island ship exchange terminal” to be built at “a carefully identified location” in the Firth of Thames. That is, an island with a causeway. Examples in Vancouver and Port Botany were cited, along with the Yangshan Port in Shanghai, which is connected by a 32km causeway-style bridge.

Like UNISCS, the chamber rejected the Manukau option, because of the inherent risks of the site and thescale of the engineering challenge.

The big advantage of the Firth of Thames, said the chamber, was that it could be connected reasonably efficiently to freight hubs in South Auckland and Waikato.

What do we need now?

This month the Government has announced a New Zealand Rail Plan and a Transport Emissions Plan, both of which signal a commitment to increased rail and coastal shipping. That fits with the thinking behind most of the recent port studies.

But more is required. In particular:

• A supply chain strategy. That is, a regional or national strategy for ports, transport, freight and related logistics, developed by the Government. On Friday, Transport Minister Michael Wood committed to having this in place by the end of the year.

• A commitment to free up more land at the Auckland site as soon as possible.

• New core infrastructure at other strategic locations. Regardless of whether Auckland operations move to Northport, the spur line connecting that port to the main trunk line is needed for the future of Northland.

• A preferred new location to be identified. When that happens, an in-depth analysis of its viability can be done. Economic, social and cultural factors are all important, but the big missing link right now is technological. We still don’t know if a new port at Northport, or the Firth of Thames, or the Manukau, or anywhere else, can be built.

The ball is in the Government’s court.

For coverage of Monday night’s debate, see nzherald.co.nz

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