Kevin Brown is taken aback at the suggestion the new downtown ferry terminal might be another white elephant like the Britomart train and bus station. He doesn't like the premise. Britomart is not a white elephant.

"The degree to which people think these things are white elephants is inversely proportional to their foresight," says the chief executive of Auckland Regional Transport Network (ARTNL) the company responsible for building Auckland's passenger transport terminals.

Brown is a pragmatist and of the if-you-build-it-they-will-come school of public transport. "Our job is to move forward and get things done but to use relationships to make sure the right thing happens."

Hence the flurry of new ferry terminals, not just the $10.6 million redevelopment of four piers downtown, but also all around the harbour - Westpark, Beach Haven, Birkenhead, Bayswater, Northcote, Gulf Harbour and more. All up, ARTNL has a $20 million grant from Infrastructure Auckland, which it expects to finish spending in about 18 months - that is, if it manages to get through entrenched litigation at Half Moon Bay, protracted ownership wrangles at Devonport, and drawn-out resource management consents for other terminal proposals.

But, as many a ferry commuter will argue, instead of spending all that money on flash terminals, why not provide what commuters want: more frequent ferry sailings and more ferries? And what's the point of new terminals around the harbour when there's nowhere to park the car? Isn't this back to front - putting the cart-dock before the cart with the horse trailing along way behind?

Brown believes it's better to do something rather than nothing. "Let's build the terminals and encourage the councils to look at parking. Even though it's not our mandate, let's try to resolve the issues as we go." It's true, too, that ferries can't operate without wharves and that many of Auckland's piers are a disgrace - dilapidated or barely functional.

The new terminal on Pier 1 gets cheers and criticism. Yes, it's spacious and airy and the new toilets are lovely and clean. And the gull wing roofs that soar over the historic gable colonnade are a happy mix of heritage and modern. But in certain winds the open shells create a wind tunnel effect and the passenger bottleneck - disembarking and at ticket collection - is as bad as ever.

Wouldn't it have been better to spend the money on electronic ticketing and turnstiles? And wider gangways and pontoons so passengers can quickly get on and off?

Give it time, says Brown, who believes passenger flows will improve when the exit way and drop-off zone beside the old brick Ferry Building is functional and the bridge in front of Cin Cin restaurant connecting Piers 1 and 2 is built. Integrated electronic ticketing is still on the drawing board and turnstiles can be put in at a later date.

But on April 4, the day of the Stagecoach bus strike, passenger flows on the 5.30pm sailing to Devonport are in chaos. Disembarking passengers battle against a wave of commuters rushing to get on board and, as a packed-to-gunwales Kea lumbers away from the wharf, a throng of hapless commuters is left behind.

Brown acknowledges some things are not perfect. Like the harbour cruise kiosk in front of Pier 1, which can't be demolished because there is another 11 years to run on the lease.

Or that there is no covered pedestrian link to the train station. Why wasn't one put underground? "Cost prohibitive," says Brown. But ARTNL is trying to get the glass canopy next to the buses in Queen Elizabeth Square extended across Quay St - although he imagines it will be a long battle getting resource consent.

Then there's the issue of "park and ride" - the lack of parking at most ferry terminals around the harbour. When would-be commuters can't park and bus feeder services are minimal, they don't ride.

It's a frustrating situation for Fullers chief executive George Hudson: "We currently can't grow the market because we are limited at peak time by lack of park and ride at Devonport, Birkenhead and Half Moon Bay - so there needs to be some longer-term planning."

Brown says parking is outside ARTNL's mandate because funding for parking facilities comes from local authorities. "It's a fundamental issue in the region. There has to be a policy on park and ride at both ferry terminals and railway stations, but under the current governance structure that's going to be impossible."

Impossible because not all councils agree on the need for it or on the way to fund it. What's needed says Brown is a clear mandate - a regional policy on the need for park and ride and its funding.

In many cases space is also needed - an issue that can be resolved only by unpalatable solutions such as multilevel carparks, reclamation or buying private properties. Infrastructure headaches are far from the mind as the Pine Harbour ferry slips on a glassy harbour into its berth at Pier 3 on a stunning March morning.

Skipper Kevin Turner helps the 35 or so commuters on to the pontoon just after 7am to the noises of the city waking up. The 13.1m catamaran powered by twin Hamilton jets does the 12 nautical miles from Pine Harbour in 30-35 minutes. Compared with the drivers battling the 75-minute rush-hour trip using the Southern Motorway, Pine Harbour ferry commuters are in heaven.

If there is to be a renaissance in ferry services in Auckland, the Pine Harbour boat leads the small-is-beautiful way. Compact, fast, highly manoeuvrable with a shallow 65cm draught and low wash, the boat,

which is manned by the skipper alone, is ideal for getting quickly to the far reaches of the Waitemata Harbour. Turner believes a fleet of such craft (water buses carrying up to 40 passengers a trip) could provide a huge boost to Auckland's public transport services.

The Pine Harbour ferry also shows how public-private partnerships can work. The brainchild of entrepreneur Allan Drinkrow, the service was started about two years ago to serve Beachland's city commuters. Pine Harbour Marina, which runs the ferry, was able to expand services thanks to a passenger subsidy from the Auckland Regional Transport Authority. It now operates seven daily sailings, weekdays.

But the ferry is nearing capacity on peak runs. To expand Pine Harbour needs another boat - but at $800,000 for a similar vessel, no one is stepping forward with the capital.

It's a similar story with Fullers, which has no plans for new boats despite calls by ARTA and others to expand services to places such as Beach Haven, Hobsonville, Howick, St Heliers, Panmure, Browns Bay and Takapuna. Ideally, Fullers needs another 400-passenger catamaran like Kea to increase frequency and provide backup on the Devonport run, but at about $4.5 million for such a boat it's not being considered.

"We are almost at capacity on three or four routes now," says Hudson. "But we still can't justify building new plant because the cost of boats has gone up so much."

Auckland's newest service to West Harbour shows how precarious running a ferry service can be. When the motor blew up on a refurbished boat (formerly Yellow Water Taxis) it was the last straw for the operator who had been struggling to make the service and another to Beach Haven viable. Fullers, in partnership with the boat builder, put a rescue package together and applied for emergency funding from ARTA. West Harbour is now running four commuter sailings a day - one already at capacity (30 passengers) - and is bringing a second boat on to the run.

Fullers' Hudson says ARTA's tendering process for new ferry services is flawed because it doesn't take into account qualitative aspects and the true cost of running back-up boats. There's also not enough incentive to give operators security through the contract to invest.

"You would be quite brave and bold to build one or two boats and tender for a service when you could lose that contract in five years."

The issue points to a wider problem - that Auckland's commercial ferry operators are reluctant to invest in loss-making runs to build up patronage. Enter ARTA, which subsidised ferry services by $1.4 million last year. This year's proposed subsidy budget is $2.1 million including $223,000 for Pine Harbour, and $325,000 for Birkenhead and Northcote Point.

Compared with buses and rail, ferries are poor cousins. For 2005 rail is likely to get $40 million and buses $52.7 million in subsidies. On the face of it, buses do look most deserving - with 45.2 million boardings last year, compared with 3.76 million for ferries (including Waiheke Island) and 3.2 million for trains.

But looking out to the expanse of the Waitemata Harbour, the question many Aucklanders, especially ferry commuters, ask is: "Why don't we use this vast natural water roadway better?" The Herald poses a similar question to ARTA: Would more ferries solve Auckland's traffic woes?

"The short answer is no," says ARTA passenger transport planning manager Fergus Gammie. "Auckland's traffic woes are spread far and wide - the question is what is the role of ferries ... and what are the types of market they can best serve?"

While ARTA is developing a new ferry strategy and looking at developing new services to Hobsonville and Greenhithe, it's clear its main focus is on buses.

"Buses are generally a lot cheaper to run than ferries for carrying the same number of people and where you have got a busway, buses become very efficient and you can move high numbers through a corridor and have a much lower operating cost."

Gammie is concerned that promoting ferries could adversely compete with other means of public transport. "Ferries could move reasonable numbers, but when you start to trade off the fact that we've got a big Northern busway and a transit lane at Onewa Rd, these sorts of things compete for a certain market in terms of their geography."

Brown disagrees, saying more ferries could make a huge difference to Auckland's motorway congestion. "It's a great way to travel, it gives people an alternative. People use public transport if they have options and frequency. The argument that you don't put ferries along the east coast [Brown's Bay and Takapuna] because they've got a bus lane is ridiculous. Don't just look at cost per passenger - look at the economic benefit of ferries."

He's talking about an overall benefit - not just in reducing road costs, but also in terms of tourism, jobs, and environment. Obvious really, but a vision that's been lost in Auckland's fixation with the car.