Back To The Port Of Auckland Future

6-minute read

When I looked in March at the work that had been released by the Port Future Study’s Consensus Working Group (CWG) , identifying a long list of areas being considered as options to meet Auckland’s future demand for a port, I had major reservations about some of the options being considered – particularly Muriwai, the Kaipara Harbour, Mahurangi (south east of Walkworth), and Whakatane.

I said then that these would be discounted and so they duly have been.

However, that process allowed the Port Future Study to achieve an objective of the Auckland Mayor, Len Brown, to “provide Aucklanders with an opportunity to have their say on the future of Auckland’s port,” after the public rallied against the Bledisloe Wharf extensions proposal.

The composition of the reference group and smaller consensus working group, representing community groups, mana whenua, planning and environmental interests, plus a couple of shipping and port representatives and two representing business groups, ensured that this would be a much broader discussion than an economic or commercially-driven review.

Now that the social and cultural ground has been covered to a degree, it is time to start getting serious with the two options left as genuine contenders – Manukau and the Firth of Thames , along with maximising the existing port footprint in the Waitemata. These are the two options which will now undergo more detailed investigation.

Let’s start by being clear about what the study was asked to do and what it has found. One foundation stone for the study was the belief that capacity will constrain the port’s ability to meet future freight and cruise demands. A second was that no further reclamation beyond what is already consented in the port precinct is required for freight purposes in the short- to medium-term.

A third is that there is a need to secure sufficient berth length in the multi-cargo area in the near future.

It was required to think at least 50 years ahead for future location dons, and not less than 30 years for freight estimations.

The major conclusions, guided by consultants EY (Ernst & Young) are that the current port needs to retain the bulk of its current functions for the foreseeable future. Shedding or downsizing freight operations may weaken the case for moving the port – albeit the group says other ports couldn’t take Auckland’s freight task in in its entirety.

The existing port footprint in the Waitemata needs to be maximised. The consultant’s report endorses PoAL’s case that additional long berths are required to accommodate expected short- and medium-term growth in cruise and multi-cargo operations.

The consultant has recommended a northern east-west berth at Bledisloe Wharf and the CWG agrees this is a viable short-term option. That would mean adding 25 metres to Bledisloe on piles that could be removed later.

Concurrently, more detailed investigation needs to be done on building a new port at Manukau or the Firth of Thames. Those investigations will focus on issues such as engineering requirements, navigability and availability of land, plus potential environmental and mana whenua issues.

The cruise industry should remain in the city, however, and facilities for it improved.

Reaction to the proposals has been mixed.

Mayoral candidate and former Labour leader Phil Goff supported giving the Auckland public more access to the waterfront, as did rival candidate Vie Crone, but Transport Minister Simon Bridges didn’t think moving the port was realistic.

The Auckland Chamber of Commerce signalled its fears in advance of the council deliberating over the report, saying it contains errors and inaccuracies in, for example, data on the port’s growth rates and capacity, rail and road freight operating and infrastructure costs and the east versus west coast location option.

Ports of Auckland has been respectful of the report, saying that the decision about where it will operate from will be determined through a process led by its owner, Auckland Council, and in the meantime it will concentrate on operating efficiently. It is a sensible, non-committal comment in a highly-political environment.

Rival Port of Tauranga chairman David Pilkington ‘however’ was strong in his reaction, saying his company’s shareholders would take some convincing that building a new “super-port” at the Firth of Thames (or Manukau for that matter) to serve the upper North Island would be a good move.

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He dismissed speculation about Tauranga’s capacity constraints, saying that the report doesn’t take into consideration that the Port of Tauranga’s existing container terminal at Sulphur Point has extra capacity and once that is constrained the company could look to extend operations to its Mt Maunganui site (currently used breakbulk).

Road Transport Forum spokesman Ken Shirley came up with a great quote relating to how the people of Auckland want both access to the waterfront and no disruption to their flow of freight – “everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die”.

I would look at several issues in summarising the debate. First, it is good that PoAL looks likely to get council support for a piled extension to Bledisloe. This at least gives it some elbow room to plan ahead and accommodate growth, while looking at technological and operational advances to extend its current capacity.

Regarding Manukau, the discussion will be split into two parts. One will be the physical ability to create a port, dredge the channel and make the bar navigable for ships far bigger than it has ever had to accommodate.

The second will be the preference of shipping lines not to be on the west coast. All the other ports want to call at are on the east. It is for this exact reason that New Plymouth has always struggled to attract or retain container operations.

The question then would be whether a Manukau development would weaken the commercial hand of PoAL in attracting carriers.

Regarding the Firth of Thames, the biggest issue there will be the inland transportation links. A significant investment would have to be made in a motorway or expressway to link the new port with SH1 through Clevedon into Papakura, to provide an access and exit for trucks.

Another huge investment would need to be made into a rail link. Presumably this would have to mirror the route of the new motorway, as being the shortest distance to an existing rail line, namely the main trunk.

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The distance involved for both connections would be about 45km. Going the other way, via Kaiaua and SH2 to Pokeno, would be about 58km and would position trucks and trains south of the Bombay Hills, further away from the city.

Either way, we are talking a significant inland development cost as well as the cost of building the port, dredging the channel and so on.

I have seen a cost figure suggested of between $4 billion and $5.5 billion for the port but my guess is that the connecting infrastructure would push that out.

As to who would pay for this, Auckland ratepayers would baulk at handling the price tag alone. Sale of the real estate beside the Auckland wharves has been estimated as fetching a far smaller figure – perhaps $1 billion. That leaves a significant shortfall.

This discussion is going to last for years and there will be plenty to talk about when all of the above sinks in.

For the meantime, the ball will be left in the court of the incoming council elected in October to commission more detailed technical analysis on the two favoured relocation sites.

We’ll keep tabs on the debate as it moves to its next stage.

Source: NZ Shipping Gazette

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