Michael Barnett: Freight route should be priority

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Goods are moved between ports and this central depot in Onehunga. Photo / Steven McNichol
Goods are moved between ports and this central depot in Onehunga. Photo / Steven McNichol

The Auckland Council has claimed the Central Rail Link to be Auckland's most important transport investment in the immediate future. I disagree. The recently published Auckland Plan also highlighted another transport investment critically needed for the city's economic development.

Like the central rail link it also requires more than $2 billion.

The project is called the Auckland-Manukau Eastern Transport Initiative east-west link. It is time its story was told.

It begins not as a story about Auckland's roads but as one about freight and Auckland's vital links through our sea and airports to the rest of the world.

Tucked away in the working heart of Auckland's industrial belt is New Zealand's third-largest container port, which is playing an increasingly critical role in Auckland's efforts to become a more export-focused economy.

Known as MetroPort it is the point on the proposed east-west link where around 300,000 heavy freight trucks converge throughout the year. They are delivering and picking up containers that have been railed to or from the Port of Tauranga.

In nearby Neilson and Church Sts are the headquarters of some 50 of New Zealand's largest trucking companies, such as TranzLink which has around 100,000 truck movements a year.

These and other local trucking firms link to Ports of Auckland to carry around 60 per cent of goods handled by the port for customers in this part of Auckland.

Many of these firms also truck goods to or from Auckland Airport and distribute daily to destinations across the Upper North Island from warehouses where containers are unpacked and/or packed.

The east-west link is important in Auckland's employment trends and opportunities. Despite the tough economic times, a strong pattern of employment growth in the transport sector has occurred in this part of Auckland over the past 10 years. Other than central Auckland, the same job growth has not been seen elsewhere in New Zealand.

The east-west link ranks as Auckland's top transport infrastructure project because it is critically important to Auckland and New Zealand's export-led growth, it carries 6000 heavy freight trips a week - the highest volume of any road in New Zealand - and the route is the location of New Zealand's largest freight companies, including many servicing exporters and daily distribution of inter-regional freight.

In the past year, MetroPort was exceeded only by Ports of Auckland and Port of Tauranga for the number of containers transhipped, and projections are that container numbers will be well above 400,000 by 2020. Each "container" is a road freight trip.

With Auckland's freight volumes expected to double over the next 20 years and more freight traffic already on some of the roads in the project area than at any point on any of the Government's roads of national significance, it is critical that the project is moved off the Auckland Plan and becomes properly resourced, prioritised and delivered.

As the economy recovers and more focus is put on export-led growth, delays to freight transport in this sector can only be expected to get worse.

This is unacceptable. While the 30-year Auckland Plan lists both the east-west link and central rail link for completion by 2020, there is justified concern in the business community that the supporting action plans, especially the 10-year long-term plan continues to see the east-west link as a priority.

There is no funding or firm programme provided for establishing an integration with the east-west portion of the link to prioritise a freight corridor.

This is also unacceptable. A reconfigured and integrated project prioritising the link as a freight corridor is required urgently.

I am not seeking to judge the merits of the central rail link, but since economic growth and productivity is a key priority for Auckland there is a strong case for a fully integrated transport corridor for freight from East Tamaki to Onehunga with efficient connections to the Southern Motorway and the western ring route.

There have been indications provided to the business community that the east-west link will have a high ratio of benefit to cost, higher than the central rail link because its benefits are more immediate and lead to economic growth and productivity, whereas the central rail link is a long term investment.

I am not saying business does not support the central rail link - I am saying we support Auckland-Manukau Eastern Transport Initiative east-west ahead of it, and why.

Michael Barnett is chairman of the Auckland Business Forum.

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