The Government will open tenders soon for a technical feasibility study of Manukau Harbour as a potential future port for Auckland, raising more questions about why it's being done when the Ministry of Transport is still a way off finishing a major supply chain strategy.
Money for the Manukau Harbour technical engineering study was allocated in last week's Budget, with funding of $3.7 million to be shared between this work, a feasibility study on a national dry dock at Northland and research to assist the development of the freight and supply chain strategy.
A Manukau port was the highest ranked option of a 2020 report by economic consultancy Sapere, though navigability of the harbour entrance and shipping insurance risk were raised as red flags. Developing a port there had the second highest capital cost of all the location options Sapere looked at for the previous Government.
Consenting could be problematic, ministers at the time noted. However they said consenting and engineering could be difficult for all five options looked at - Northport, Manukau, the Firth of Thames, Port of Tauranga and a shared increase in capacity at both Northport and Tauranga.
A 2019 report by the Government-commissioned Upper North Island Supply Chain (Unisc) working group did not consider Manukau seriously at all, dismissing it because of those navigation and insurance risks.
But Infometrics principal economist Brad Olsen told the Herald people were viewing the Budget allocation as confirmation Manukau "is now a live Government consideration".
Given the transport minister was still consulting on the wider supply chain issues paper, "it seems a little cart before the horse".
"In my view it would be a lot more sensible to have that strategy in place first. It seems to be very haphazard at the moment."
Transport minister Michael Wood's office said an open tender process for the two Budget feasibility studies would be run on Gets, the Government Electronic Tender Service. Advance notice for each project would be issued shortly. Timelines for both would be confirmed at the awarding of the tenders.
How the $3.7m would be divvied up was commercially sensitive.
The Sapere report, understood to have cost around $2m was the second port study in eight months and the third in four years. The Unisc study cost $850,000, with an additional budget of up to $500,000 for transport ministry secretariat support.
Port sector observers say New Zealand taxpayers have now funded more than 25 reports on ports with no tangible outcomes.
Olsen, whose consultancy makes its living writing reports, said reports were "incredibly important because you need to have good information on which to base decisions".
"But you have to have a clear rationale as to what all these reports are for and what they are building towards. I feel like there's a huge amount of spindles of work going on without any over-arching strategy.
"If you don't have that in place first we will continue to go down this path of having tomes of paper sitting around without any direction.
"It's incredibly confusing to see all these various reports having no ability to agree."
The Government earlier this month issued a discussion paper on freight and supply chain issues, intended as a prelude to the logistics strategy for the country.
It received mixed reviews from the sector.
Mainfreight managing director Don Braid said it was "more waffle and wasteful consultation" and doubted the advice and input of business would be listened to anyway.
"Another discussion paper. Oh my goodness how many do we need? Will the Government listen and act on advice from the business sector? We would be doubtful ...," Braid said.
Olsen's concern about the risk of a piecemeal approach to future Auckland port location was shared on Budget day by New Zealand Shipping Federation executive director John Harbord.
While welcoming the Government attention to ports, Harbord said before the Manukau study began there should be clarity on what the port was intended for.
Was a Manukau port intended as an international "hub" port or a "spoke" port for regional shipping calls?
"There have been numerous studies. We would be looking for how it fits into the Ministry of Transport's (total freight) strategy, does it replace Ports of Auckland, how it fits into the supply chain. It's really important that clarity on this is provided before the study kicks off. Otherwise what are they evaluating?"
Minister Wood's office said the Northport dry dock study would assess the strategic and economic value of a facility, including investigating the wider benefits of a larger dry dock to serve the country.
Northport, a joint venture between listed Port of Tauranga and Marsden Maritime Holdings, has already invested capital and time nutting out the feasibility of a dry dock there. The facility forms part of its growth vision. Wood's office said the Government study would build on that work.