An inland port in west Auckland and a vehicle importing and servicing centre at Northport are among a dozen potential transport investments a working group is considering to improve freight handling in the upper North Island.
The group, formed last year, has spent the past eight months talking with users and imagining how the existing ports at Auckland, Marsden Point and Tauranga – and the road and rail links between them – could be reconfigured to provide the best options for long-term growth.
It plans to report back to the government in June with options and complete more detailed costings and recommendations in September.
"There are a large number of infrastructure options that may have a part or full place to play in changes to the upper North Island supply chain which will be considered," chair Wayne Brown says in a progress report filed with Cabinet's Economic Development Committee earlier this month.
"For example, in evaluating one of our options that involves moving some of Ports of Auckland's freight task to Northport, we will consider potential infrastructure that may be required to support this," the group says.
They include: "a spur to Northport, which we understand the current government is investigating; upgrades to the existing North Auckland Line; potential short-term operational changes, such as moving freight through Auckland on the commuter network at night; potential long-term new infrastructure requirements such as a new rail line out west of Auckland to avoid congestion in the Auckland public transport rail network and connect through to the current inland freight terminals; and the potential establishment of new inland freight terminals."
The Upper North Island Supply Chain study was the result of a pre-election pledge by NZ First to move container operation from Ports of Auckland to Northport by 2027.
While there is broad consensus that Auckland's port will be increasingly constrained by the city's development around it, there is no agreement as to how soon change is needed, how much freight could be redirected through Tauranga or Northport, and how that would be achieved.
As recently as 2016 a study group recommended work start assessing Manukau Harbour or the Firth of Thames as long-term replacement options for Auckland. Last August, Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns said there wasn't yet sufficient freight volume in Northland to warrant the relocation north. Port of Tauranga owns half of Northport.
Auckland and Tauranga are the country's two largest container ports. With Northport, they handle about half the country's exports and two-thirds of its import volumes.
Tauranga and Auckland, controlled by Bay of Plenty Regional Council and Auckland Council respectively, compete for freight. They considered a merger in 2006 but talks collapsed the following year. Ports of Auckland has a 20 percent stake in Northland Regional Council-controlled Marsden Maritime Holdings, Tauranga's partner in Northport.
The working group noted submitters' views that the "interwoven" nature of the three ports' ownership had prevented them being developed in New Zealand's best interests and had resulted in some inefficiencies and "duplication" of resources.
"We will be considering the current ownership structure of ports and whether a change may be needed to ensure interests are aligned to deliver the best outcome for New Zealand," the group says.
"Councils were somewhat open to a change in port ownership as long as they preserved their income and value of the port to their community."
Ports are long-term businesses. The working group is canvassing issues in 10-, 25- and 50-year timeframes.
Scope is also important. Freight operators argue Northport, west of the Marsden Point oil refinery, could meet growth on Auckland's North Shore, rather than replacing Ports of Auckland entirely.
Short-term options could include establishing a distribution centre at Silverdale or Orewa; imports and Northland products could be trucked there overnight – avoiding congestion on SH1 - for day-time delivery into Auckland.
Northport already plays a similar role. Structural components for some major Auckland building projects are stored there for just-in-time delivery to avoid congestion in the CBD.
Car imports have already been identified as a potential early change. Ten hectares of new space at Northport could provide storage for 10,000 cars. Auckland currently receives about 300,000 cars annually, each of which spends close to three days on its wharves.
Northport started operating in 2002 and is largely a blank canvas. Its 49-hectare footprint can be expanded to 75 ha, while its berth length can be more than doubled to 1,390 metres. The port lies next to 180 ha of commercial and industrial land controlled by shareholder Marsden Maritime.
But it has limited capital for development and no rail link. KiwiRail and the Ministry of Transport are investigating a $200 million, 20-kilometre spur line, but that is probably more than six years away even if there was a prompt decision to proceed.
The existing line from Swanson to Fonterra's Kauri dairy plant north of Whangarei also needs upgrading at a cost of another $500 million to carry larger and heavier container traffic. KiwiRail has previously estimated the total bill – including upgrading rail capacity from South Auckland – at about $2 billion.
The working group noted its "fundamental" belief that there is "no point making further investment in Northport without investment in, and development of, the train line to Auckland."