There is no definitive "best" solution for the Auckland port and upper North Island freight. It depends what we want to preserve or change. What kind of waterfront we want, how do we value the relative costs of each option, including doing nothing – and how do we face the future?
Auckland needs a port
What Auckland needs is an efficient import and distribution system for the goods we buy and consume. That's not the same thing as needing a port.
The question is, can efficiency – economic and environmental – be achieved in other ways? Because if it can, there are other things we could use that port land for.
Auckland definitely doesn't need a port for exports.
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Also, what "Auckland needs" isn't the only factor. This is a decision for the Government to make because the implications are national, not parochially local.
Chair of the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy (UNISCS), Wayne Brown: "There's too much of the people of Auckland telling us what's good for Auckland is good for New Zealand. It's not. Auckland is not the centre of New Zealand business. It's the centre of New Zealand expenditure.
"It produces hardly any exports. What it does is in IT, education and tourism. And you don't need a port for those. It's a cost to New Zealand. We live on the back of the regions."
There's a lot of very blunt speaking in this debate.
In fact, UNISCS does propose a port for Auckland. It's the inland port, or freight hub, somewhere near Kumeu in the city's northwest. This hub, and the proposal to focus on rail, are at the heart of the proposal. Think of the inland port as the hub of a wheel, with the rail lines and roads as spokes.
The same thing doesn't work if we leave the port on the waterfront, says Brown. The roads are clogged and "every time you enlarge the capacity of rail it will fill up straight away with passengers."
Because of the current transport inefficiencies, he adds, the port has been reduced to "storing cars and empty containers".
Greg Miller, boss of KiwiRail and a member of Brown's UNISCS group, says the hub will be on land with the capacity for 100 years of expansion. Around it, other industries will thrive: freight forwarders, rail maintenance, refrigeration, hi-tech logistics and more.
70 per cent of freight by rail – really?
UNISCS proposes we put 70 per cent of freight movements (by tonnage per kilometre) on rail. Currently it's 12 per cent.
Auckland mayor Phil Goff thinks it's a pipe dream. "Nowhere else has 70 per cent," he says.
"How are you going to do it without coercion?" asks Matt Ball, GM of public relations at the port. "You need willing participants to make that kind of thing happen."
KiwiRail's Greg Miller says 70 per cent is "conservative". Globally, he says, the shift to rail has already started. Canada in last 10 years has moved 40 per cent of its short-haul freight and 60 per cent long haul to rail.
One obvious reason is climate change: even using diesel units, Miller says a train can carry 1000 tonnes, the equivalent of 30 big truck payloads, with 66 per cent lower emissions than trucks. When it's electric it will be vastly better than that.
Will it be electric? Brown says they didn't recommend it as a need-to-have now but he expects it will happen. Miller says the upgrade work they have already started on the Northland rail tunnels has capacity for electrification built in (more about this on Thursday).
Another reason for switching to rail is the cost on the roads. Miller says road maintenance cost New Zealand $900 million a decade ago, but now it's $4 billion. Because of the increased numbers of trucks.
He says the biggest freight companies all get it. Mainfreight, Toll, Peter Baker, Netlogix, he says, are "all turning to rail. They know the future."
Is the port running out of space?
Setting that aside, what's the reason to shift the port? Is it running out of space?
The report says everyone agrees it is, and it seems the Government accepts this: Finance Minister Grant Robertson says it's "acknowledged by the Ports of Auckland themselves".
Robertson: "[As the] nature of shipping changes, they don't have the capacity from the 2030s onwards to be the kind of deep-water port that's needed".
But Matt Ball at the port says that's not true: "Our current automation project will provide sufficient capacity out to 2050. Further automation could provide capacity beyond this date."
Is the port getting more efficient?
That's what it says. Under CEO Tony Gibson it has become fully competitive with Tauranga. It's consolidated its operations by, for example, moving the cement depot from Onehunga to the downtown waterfront.
It's applied for a resource consent to dredge 2.5 million cubic metres of sediment from the Waitematā, so it can take larger container ships. It's building a five-storey "car storage facility" and intends to follow that with a hotel. There's a 30-year master plan to develop the whole port facility and, arching over everything, that major automation project, costing $650 million, is underway.
But there's another way to look at all this activity: POA is sinking so much cost into the port, the argument to walk away gets harder by the day.
In Wayne Brown's view, it's a deliberate strategy. He says they're digging in.
Brown says Ports of Auckland does not have a "New Zealand Inc" approach to its future. "When they got their new cranes, they could have sold the old ones on Bledisloe Wharf to Northport." He says. "But they didn't. They were broken up and sold for scrap."
Greg Miller says it hardly matters how much more efficient they become on the wharves because it won't solve congestion on the roads.
What could we do with that land?
David Vinsen, head of the Vehicle Importers Association, which represents used car dealers, doesn't see an alternative for the port land. He says it's a "minority view" that it should be given over to recreation and mixed residential-business use.
"Apartments and coffee bars. That hasn't worked down the other end of the wharf."
You either believe it or you don't.
Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei, which owns the land on the other side of the road from the port, has been working quietly for some time on its own proposals. Today iwi spokesperson Ngarimu Blair has revealed what they are. Pretty splendid?
The firm Archimedia should feel pleased: they've proposed something rather similar. The people behind the sunken stadium, the Crater, may also feel the winds of change may, finally, be starting to blow.
With all that possibility before us, here's a word from Susan Krumdieck, a transport and logistics expert from the University of Canterbury, and a member of the UNISCS working group.
When she looked at the issue, she saw a city that brings its imports through the front gate to a downtown port and then squeezes them onto congested roads to inland storage and distribution centres. She wondered why we weren't bringing them in the back way.
"The time has come," she says, "to move the freight delivery around to the service entrance."
PORT IN A STORM: THE SERIES
Moving the port is the biggest infrastructure project Auckland has faced. This week we're examining the proposal in detail, and looking ahead to ask: what does the future hold for the city?
Monday: The Big Idea.
Tuesday: For and against: Why move the Auckland port?
Wednesday: The lure of the Waikato: Why not go south?
Thursday: "The North of Plenty": Why Northport?
Friday: Crunching the numbers: Is this good economics?
Saturday: Auckland 2050: Our city in 30 years.