The University of Auckland’s Tava Olsen firmly believes the Ports of Auckland should stay where it is for now. But if it were to move, there’s one thing it couldn’t do without. 

A government working party will take a plan to Cabinet next month that supports moving the Ports of Auckland to Northport in Whangarei.

While this location is more practical than previous suggestions such as Firth of Thames, Manukau Harbour, or Tauranga, it is still logistically flawed and I believe that the $10 billion that has been quoted for the required infrastructure could be better spent elsewhere.

So why is the idea flawed? The fact is, most goods that pass through the terminal are destined for Auckland. It makes no sense to ship them somewhere else and then have to transport them back to Auckland. This process would involve huge costs in upgrading roading, rail, and other infrastructure and end up making everything we buy much more expensive.

Of course, the gain for Northland would be good for the area’s economy. But the loss of income for Auckland would be significant and I am very sceptical on some of the numbers being bandied around regarding alternate income from the land if it wasn’t a port.

Most of the land around the port is reclaimed and therefore building on it would be very expensive. Furthermore, much of the infrastructure would need to stay to accommodate cruise ships, each of which bring around $1 million to the Auckland economy per visit. But operating tugs, etc., only for cruise ships and not as part of a working port would mean big peaks and valleys in their utilisations, which would be quite inefficient.

Of course, land use is at the heart of this issue. Auckland is obsessed with property and the need to create more space on the waterfront. But there are still large areas of underdeveloped land in downtown Auckland which should be considered ahead of moving the port. When you compare the development of Auckland’s downtown area with cities overseas such as Vancouver, the contrast could not be more stark – like night and day. Vancouver seems to efficiently use almost every square metre of its downtown land, whereas Auckland has rental car and surface parking lots, to name just two inefficient land uses.

In addition to the financial costs, we must also consider the environmental impact of such a move – and that is a consideration we must look at more seriously now than ever, particularly with the level of carbon emissions that would result in transporting goods back to Auckland from a new port location. Particularly, given that there aren’t any practical electric options at this point.

A key reason rail is not used more by the port are the handling costs and these would be exacerbated if going out of Northport. It’s also worth making the point that if traffic levels is one of the reasons for moving the ports from the city’s waterfront, Aucklanders could just mandate a move to rail and, as portside automation options increase, rail handling costs would go down.

Of course, while we are not too green in our transportation systems at the moment, the plan for Northport does include upgrading the Northern rail line. This would need to be the first step. The roads between Auckland and Northland do not have the capacity for the increased traffic, and we don’t want the increased greenhouse gas emissions. As noted in the working group’s report, a new rail line would need to replace the current track which is not fit-for-purpose, and the current tunnels do not fit modern high-cube containers.

In my opinion, there is strong argument to be made for that investment alone, without moving the ports, particularly if the line was double-tracked with passenger rail alongside freight. If we really want to think big then imagine high-speed passenger rail that would allow for a one-hour Auckland to Whangarei train trip. So although I am firmly of the view that the Ports of Auckland should stay for now, I could get behind a proposal to get proper freight rail done first, and then worry about the port.

Professor Tava Olsen is Director of the Centre for Supply Chain Management at the University of Auckland Business School

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