Supporters of moving Auckland's port to Northport were behaving last week as if it was all but a done deal.
The final report of the Upper North Island Supply Chain Study group had been delivered to Cabinet, reportedly recommending that the Ports of Auckland leave the waterfront over the next 30 years and that a bigger, better-connected port at the Whangarei Harbour heads should be key to its replacement.
• Closure of Auckland ports mooted for 'political expediency' in Northland: car import chief
• Wayne Brown interview: Why the Ports of Auckland has to move
• NZX assessing trading in Marsden Maritime Holdings after details of port study leaked
• David Cormack: Why moving Auckland's port is a win for everyone
Offsetting, but not necessarily fully funding, the massive cost of this change would be the economic value unlocked by giving Auckland back its waterfront. Only cruise ships would visit once the shift was achieved.
The Prime Minister appeared to endorse the idea by saying Auckland's port must eventually move , although she didn't say anything about where to.
A Northport recommendation would be a happy and hardly unexpected outcome for Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones, whose NZ First party may need to win an electorate seat in Northland to survive the 2020 election.
But there is a problem: the final report now recommending Northport has been informed by analysis from EY, the same accounting firm that ranked Northport 12th out of 14 options when it led a far deeper dive into these issues in the 2016 Future Ports Study.
That report recommended Muriwai, the Manukau Harbour at Wiri, or the Firth of Thames as its top three.
The Manukau and Muriwai options have been largely ruled out. However, the Auckland port thinks that, far from being unconsentable in part because of mana whenua issues, the Firth of Thames option might attract investment from Tainui Holdings, which owns key freight hub assets in Hamilton, one of the three points of the Auckland-Hamilton-Tauranga "Golden Triangle".
Pattrick Smellie: Media merger phoenix has another crack at rising
Smellie: Pressure on Jacinda Ardern over water quality
Alan McDonald, at the Auckland Employers and Manufacturers Association, was on the multi-stakeholder panel that undertook the 2016 study. He is aghast that Northport should suddenly have come up trumps.
Roughly 800,000 of the one million-odd containers that come over the Auckland wharves annually end up staying within a 25 kilometre radius of the port, he says. Moving to Northport adds a 150 kilometre journey.
"It's moving to a port that basically doesn't exist," says McDonald, who says Northport's wharf lengths are too small and can't be expanded to compare with Auckland's current capacity – a claim that Northport disputes.
"Then you're putting it on to road and rail that basically doesn't exist," he says. The government has abandoned four-laning the Auckland-Whangarei highway, while the current KiwiRail connection to Whangarei is in a parlous state and lacks a spur-line out to the port.
KiwiRail's chief executive Greg Miller has committed $94.8 million urgent funding to the Northland line, but only enough to keep its many bridges, tunnels and kilometres of poorly maintained, speed-restricted single track ticking over.
The EY-led draft UNISCS reports expects an eye-popping 70 per cent of all freight between Auckland and Whangarei will be on rail. Double-tracking would be inevitable but, like many other major costs, doesn't appear in its $1.7 billion estimated cost of the shift.
Once it reaches the outskirts of Auckland, that freight will be handled through a new inland port, which "basically doesn't exist", says McDonald. From there, it would navigate the Auckland isthmus, where both road and rail connections are already choked.
Miller believes a $1.5b third rail-line through the isthmus can be avoided for a while by hugely increasing dead-of-night train movements through Auckland, but it is not a long-term fix.
Either way, where will that freight be when it gets through the Auckland bottleneck?
"Back where it would have started if it had been offloaded at the Port of Auckland," McDonald says.
If Northport is really such a good idea, the analysis on which this massive decision is based must be subject to the most rigorous scrutiny – not airy talk of "nation-building" when so much other public infrastructure is crumbling and could do with the investment.
Especially not when it looks a helluva lot like a project cooked up by a pork-barrelling minister who asked some people he already agreed with to recommend a decision that can only be to his electoral advantage.
Yes. Auckland's port can't stay where it is in the long term.
Yes. There is a case for far better transport connectivity for Northland, both road and rail, particularly as a region that Miller has dubbed "the North of Plenty" starts to develop its horticultural potential.
But that doesn't mean the Northport recommendation should just be ticked through.
Critiques of the draft UNISC report for PoAL by two reputable economic consultants – NZIER and Castalia – are, to put it mildly, savage. They all but ask how EY could let such questionable analysis out the door with its name on it.
Both find its methodology impenetrable, its costings seriously undercooked, and say its estimated shift cost of $1.7b is probably more like $6b-plus once all infrastructure needs and the time value of money are taken into account.
Opposition from Transport Minister Phil Twyford may not matter - he is as much in the Cabinet dog-box as Jones.
The scepticism of Finance Minister Grant Robertson may prove to be somewhat more serious.