COMMENT: Change is coming to the downtown waterfront. But how good will it be? As reported today, Mayor Phil Goff has asked Ports of Auckland (POAL) "to find better ways of clearing imported cars off Auckland wharves".
The "better way" POAL is looking at is a proposal to use electric barges to move the car imports off the wharves to an inland depot way up the Tamaki Estuary.
Meanwhile, POAL's new five-storey building for storing cars is nearing completion at the Quay St end of Bledisloe Wharf.
Are the cars about to disappear from the wharves? Well, no. They'll be unloaded from their carrier ships as now, onto Captain Cook and Bledisloe wharves, and then, Goff believes, barged away same day. The overflow – cars not routed to the inland depot – would be stored in the building and removed by car-carrier trucks.
In Goff's view, there would still be cars on the wharves, but not as often and not as many.
POAL isn't so sure. Spokesperson Matt Ball told me there might not be much change to the turnaround time or to the use of the wharves. "Think of it like a bellows," he said. The ship arrives, they suck all the cars out of it very quickly, and then they spend the next two or three days clearing them off the quay.
They'll handle around 250,000 vehicles this year, arriving in batches of 1000 to 3000 per ship. That's 125 ship visits, or one every three days. That's why those wharves are almost always full of cars.
Despite what Ball said, Goff told the Herald the barges and carpark building are both part of a larger plan to free up Captain Cook for public use. The mayor and the port have some hard talking to do. On this one, all power to Goff, is what I say.
What both sides agree on, though, is that the barges will be able to take a lot of trucks off busy city roads and the most congested stretch of motorway.
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It's 100 truck journeys per barge-load, suggests POAL: 50 trucks there and back, carrying five cars a trip. That's 800 truck journeys per ship visit, or 100,000 truck journeys a year. The impact on the roads will be significant and if it happens it will be a big win for the city.
When could this happen? Goff says within a year or two, but that's optimistic. There are consents to be granted, a barge to build, river dredging to do ...
Still, it's progress. And there's more. Auckland Council's stupid plan to blight the harbour with two mooring "dolphins" built onto the end of Queens Wharf has stalled. The plan was headed to the Environment Court, but mediation this week among the affected parties has resulted in an agreement to "workshop" the options.
Are the dolphins dead in the water? Not yet. But it's fair to say there's some blood.
And lurking in the background to both issues is the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy (UNISCS) working group, whose second report was due to land on the desks of the relevant ministers yesterday.
I'm told it contains some blunt advice about the future of the Waitematā port and the urgent need for some complex decision-making on when, where and how it should move.
Dolphins are permanent mooring platforms, attached to the seabed and connected by a gangway to the wharf, that allow extra-large cruise ships to berth at Queens Wharf.
Currently those ships anchor in the Waitematā, a situation that already means we get fewer visits, and those we do get are usually not "turnarounds", when there's a change of passengers. For the city, they're the most lucrative visits.
Last year, council development agency Panuku, backed by POAL, persuaded a majority of councillors the dolphins were the only viable option for berthing the ships. A coalition of sailing, environment, design and community groups has been going through the legal processes of trying to get them stopped.
Mayor Phil Goff voted for the dolphins. But their cost has blown out from $9.4 million to an estimated $16.9 million, perhaps more, and he has been muttering darkly about them in council meetings. The newly agreed workshops will give him the chance to show the calibre of his leadership, by steering the opposing parties to a mutually acceptable outcome.
It won't be easy but it is possible. The tantalising prospect is that Bledisloe Wharf, where the car-carrier ships berth, is already long enough for the mega-cruise ships, provided remedial work is done.
There's quite a lot to do. Matt Ball says it would cost $150 million to prepare Bledisloe for cruise ships: the small Marsden Wharf has to be demolished, a long rock shelf dug out, and strengthening completed at the south end.
But POAL has a history of saying "can't be done" and then finding a way to do it. The mega-cruise and car-carrier ship schedules have enough empty days in their schedules to suggest some accommodation should be possible. At least in the interim.
Beyond all this lies the UNISCS report and the much larger question of what will happen to the port itself. Even POAL acknowledges the long-term future of the cars and containers is probably elsewhere. Both the land and the options for freight movements in and out will no longer be fit for purpose.
When? The consensus view of the 2016 Port Future Study, which POAL was a part of, was that planning a new location was on the 20-year horizon. But POAL is working to a 30-year strategic plan, approved by the council in October 2018, most of which involves staying where it is.
Pretty soon it intends to dredge two million cubic metres of mud from the Waitematā, to accommodate larger container ships. And when it's finished the carpark building, it wants to build a hotel right next to it.
The UNISCS working group, which was convened by the Government, has different ideas. Its first report, released in April, stated: "Shipping industry representatives noted ... the network [will become] considerably constrained in 10-15 years. Given how long it takes to implement major infrastructure this means that serious planning needs to start immediately."
Mark that: 10-15 years. That's now.
My sources tell me UNISCS will accept this timeline. It's moving towards a new integrated strategy for freight, including the future of each upper North Island port and their relationships with each other, the role and location of inland logistical centres, and transport links – that's road, rail and also coastal shipping.
The big question is usually: where would a new Auckland port be located? There's no easy answer – if there was, we'd have built the thing already. The 2016 Port Future Study suggested Manukau or the Firth of Thames, but there's little appetite for either.
It's quite possible UNISCS will point to a different answer: no new port at all. It could end up suggesting the containers and car trades be accommodated at other existing ports. Northport, the deep-water port at Marsden Point, near Whangārei, will be the big winner out of that.
Perhaps the biggest question is: should growth in freight be channelled south, along the road/rail spine from Auckland through Hamilton to Tauranga, or does bulking up Northport make more sense?
Stephen Selwood of Infrastructure NZ believes strongly the future lies in the south. Winston Peters and Shane Jones are boosters for Northport. If their view prevails, we'll need a much better rail link through northwest Auckland, probably with a major new inland port somewhere there too.
If Selwood's view prevails, there'll be major expansion of the inland ports in south Auckland and Waikato, and Sleepyhead will not be the only corporation to build a brand new town somewhere on the main trunk line.
Nothing will be decided in a flash. Nothing can be. But precisely because it's a long-term project, the process needs to start.
And none of it should be left to Auckland Council, or Ports of Auckland, or Auckland alone. The strategy has to be decided by the Government, acting in the national interest.
Goff also says the Government has to "meet the cost of the infrastructure": he means Auckland won't want to pay for new rail lines and tunnels to service a port somewhere else, even if that port will still be servicing Auckland.
And those barges? They'll get trucks off the roads, but will they really free up the wharves? Or will heavy investment in barges consolidate the presence of cars on the wharves for another decade or three? That would be a terrible outcome.
This is POAL's chance to get ahead of the game. Instead of being dragged to the Environment Court and being forced to give up wharf space inch by inch, why doesn't it get ahead of the game? Forgo the dolphins, utilise Bledisloe for the big cruise ships and – thinking big here – buy itself a bigger slice of Northport.