Auckland's port will not achieve full implementation of its controversial container terminal automation project by the end of March as it suggested.
The Auckland Council-owned port, the red zone for North Island freight supply chain delays as container ships queue to offload imports, said it had been too busy to start container terminal pavement work needed for full automation, and hoped to start pavement work in April.
However, in a written response to a Herald inquiry, the port said this was dependent on several factors.
"Once we have more staff and have cleared the backlog [of imports], we will start the pavement work and finish automation.
"If recruitment and training goes well, we hope to start the pavement work in April."
The pavement work had been delayed because the port had been too busy with daily operations.
"While the pavement work is being done, we will have less terminal capacity. If we did it now it would increase congestion and delays for importers and exporters," the company said.
"It is better to delay automation than delay freight - we do not want to add to supply chain problems."
Ports of Auckland is New Zealand's main import gateway and has blamed the congestion - which for weeks has seen container ships waiting up to 10 days to unload their cargoes - on the pandemic's congestion impact on global shipping, Covid-19 lockdown delays, and a shortage of stevedores and crane operators.
It is unable to use all its big cranes for unloading and is trying to recruit and train 85 stevedores. As part of this recruitment drive it has applied to the Government to speedily bring in five crane operators from overseas.
Many ships have been diverted to Tauranga and more recently Northland, which has contributed to pressure on the road and rail freight network.
But angry and frustrated importers, retailers and manufacturers and some in the freight forwarding sector blame issues and delays with the automation project, started in 2016.
Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett said for the city's businesses the delay was an "obvious" decision.
"The chamber has spoken to the port ... and asked if delaying the automation project now would mean a faster delivery of containers off the wharf and we have been assured – yes," he said.
"It would seem that elements of the automation project such as paving would delay containers off the wharf. Given the choice, the decision for businesses in Auckland is obvious.
"We have also been working with the port to temporarily obtain visas for additional crane operators which would significantly lift the clearing of containers from the port which is what the business community is demanding," Barnett said.
Neither the port company nor the Auckland Council will reveal how much the project has cost so far. Industry observers believe it could be up to $400 million.
In a statement in August 2016 announcing a start on the automation project, the company said it would be complete in 2019.
When complete, automated straddle carriers would be used to load and unload trucks and operate the container yard. Manually-driven straddle carriers would continue to work between the yard and ship-to-shore cranes.
Chief executive Tony Gibson said the project was a "game changer" for the port.
It would increase terminal capacity from 900,000 containers a year to up to 1.7 million.
The technology would give the port another 30-40 years of capacity and automated straddle carriers would use up to 10 per cent less fuel, reducing the port's carbon footprint and lower costs.
"As a result of automation, around 50 stevedoring jobs could go," the port said in the 2016 statement.