Last week a container shipment left Northport, clearly demonstrating the potential for Northport to support economic growth in our region. Various government announcements have pointed to integrated logistics, port and rail studies. Now is the time to be thinking about these things.

Northport has previously taken a calculated risk to purchase a container crane in the belief Northland's economy was heading towards more of its exports being value-added and high-value containerised freight. They are right. Their current positioning as a multipurpose port is just what Northland needs right now but Northport's strategic importance goes further than that.

Northport has significant potential for growth to support economic development in Northland but also in servicing Auckland and the Upper North Island. In its recently published Vision for Growth, Northport outlined what that could be.

Read more: Northport now a container port after first container-only cargo ship leaves

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For example, the port's current 570 metres of linear berth could increase over time to 1.39km, the facility itself could expand from its current footprint of 48 hectares to 75ha, and take advantage of up to 700ha of available commercial zoned land adjacent to it – more than any other Port in New Zealand.

There is up to 700ha of available commercial zoned land adjacent to Northport - more than any other Port in New Zealand.
There is up to 700ha of available commercial zoned land adjacent to Northport - more than any other Port in New Zealand.

To illustrate, if you were to provide 700ha of available commercial zoned land adjacent to the Port of Auckland it would likely include all of the current CBD and Parnell. Importantly Northport would not have to encroach further into the harbour, it can expand length-wise along the deep-water channel that runs right next to its current location.

Growth at Northport will not, however, proceed without Northland's support. The port is asking for comment on its vision from locals. So have your say, it is fundamental to the economic development of Northland.

Access in and out of Northport is currently via the state highway network and coastal shipping. Rail has also been mooted. Four-laning State Highway 1 is the path of least resistance in the short term, providing possible logistic solutions for Northland and Auckland as part of a wider integrated logistics solution for the upper half of the North Island. Coastal shipping and rail can be too but need to be part of a wider business plan.

If my information is correct, one of the busiest and most profitable rail lines in New Zealand is the one between Tauranga and the Onehunga inland port. Tauranga servicing Auckland and vice versa.

Northport is closer to Auckland's CBD at 140km compared to Tauranga's 205km. Tauranga to Onehunga is 197km, Northport to Silverdale is 111km, Wellsford (yes that is in Auckland), where the rail line heads west to Helensville and Waimauku is 63km.

The differences in utilisation can largely be explained by two things; demand and access. In Northport's case demand will continue to grow. But access is far from optimal in any transport mode.

A port's main job is to facilitate trade logistics and thus economic development. Efficiency gains are important as they make our businesses more competitive, especially exporters. Northport is already a solution for Northland and is a solution waiting to happen for the upper North Island.

The reason Northport exists where it does is because it's a good place for a deep-water port. You don't need to develop a new port with all the feasibility and business case contortions to retrofit something or deal with new access infrastructure, congestion issues and public access issues.

It already exists and it has room to grow. All it needs is better access and a bit of "New Zealand Inc" thinking.

■ Dr David Wilson is the Chief Executive Officer of Northland's Economic Development Agency, Northland Inc, and Chair of Economic Development NZ.