What's the most important thing, when deciding where the port and freight connections should be? Put them close to the people?
About half of New Zealand lives in the "golden triangle": The area bound by Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga. Road connections have improved, especially with the Waikato Expressway, and rail connections are getting better too: Most of the line from Auckland to Hamilton has been double tracked and improved passenger rail services are planned to join up all three cities. The line to Tauranga has been upgraded.
The triangle includes manufacturing, mainly in South Auckland, and it's the heart of the dairy and horticulture industries. And it's growing: All three cities expect strong population growth in the coming decades and big parts of the hinterland between them will fill up with houses too.
Auckland Council is planning for 50,000 more people in the coming decades living in the far south – Papakura, Drury, Karaka, the Bombay Hills. In the Waikato, Sleepyhead is building a whole new town, just like Pokeno only better, they say. Others are likely to follow.
So, servicing all this, isn't that a principal requirement for the port and freight networks?
The answer is yes, but it's not a simple yes. Things are not quite as they might seem.
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For the major exporters – dairy, forestry and horticulture – Auckland port is largely irrelevant. They use the Tauranga port and would continue to do so under the proposed new setup. It's expanding to meet their needs. South Auckland doesn't export much, and what it does also tends to leave the country at Tauranga, not Auckland.
The debate over the Auckland port has always been dominated by the question of how imported goods will get to local markets: Having them arrive near that market seems obvious. This is because Ports of Auckland, an import port, dominates the debate.
But from the country's point of view, exports are just as important. Perhaps even more so.
Auckland will never be an efficient export port. And the transport networks around the Auckland port will never be fit for purpose for handling large quantities of freight – imported or exported.
What about another site adjacent in or near the golden triangle? Well, they've looked but they have not found. If there was an obvious good one, the port would have moved there already. But as it turned out, even the shortlist compiled by the last major study, in 2016, gave little cause for cheer. None of its options makes sense.
So will a freight hub in the Auckland northwest, with modern rail and road connections north, east to the central city, south and further south, solve these problems? That's the question.
Some other factors. Despite that 50,000 growth in the south, many more people are expected to live in Auckland's northwest. That's the bigger growth centre.
In the Waikato, dairy will not keep growing the way it has as an export industry. There's a limit and it may have been reached. And electric freight trains will be extremely efficient – economically and environmentally – at transporting goods long distances.
Won't there be more trucks in the city?
Auckland mayor Phil Goff has said several times that he's worried a freight hub in the northwest will mean more trucks in the central city. Perhaps he hasn't seen what the Grafton Gully and the city stretches of the southern motorway are like now.
Perhaps also he did not think through the implications, when he launched Costco's plan to build at Westgate this year. Designing efficient supply chains all the way to retail has little to do with the central city, because relatively few consumer goods are sold there. The action is in the Wairau Valley, Sylvia Park and the other big-box shopping centres.
A freight hub in the northwest will be able to deliver efficiently to them, perhaps using small electric trucks.
Large electric trucks are also on their way. The company ContainerCo has a really big one here now, capable of carrying three containers. It's great for transporting from depot to depot.
Why import cars to a place with no people?
Does it make sense to bring in cars through Northport and then send them in a constant stream down to Auckland and further south?
No it doesn't, if they have to go by road. David Vinsen of the Vehicle Importers Association, representing used car dealers, says moving the import location anywhere else would add to costs, create delays in distribution and put hundreds more trucks on the road.
The VIA believes importing through Northport will add $100 to the cost of each car. However, Vinsen also says the VIA is "open-minded" on the issue.
Chris Carr, of the car carrier firm Carr & Haslam, says the proposal will mean "a significant increase in traffic on a shitty road north [and it's] impossible for any sane and logical New Zealander to support it under any circumstances".
Both Carr and Vinsen assume they'll be using the road. Carr believes it will be "many years before rail could get anywhere near to capacity".
But KiwiRail has $100 million from the Provincial Growth Fund and it's already started to get the line ready. Converting 70 per cent of freight transport to rail is essential to the whole proposal.
Wayne Brown, chair of the group that created the plan, says the clamour is from "all the old established car guys with investments in South Auckland who don't want to have to shift things".
Look north, you not-so-young men, he says. "The young guys are buying land around Ruakaka."
He's right about that. Ruakaka is the coastal land south from Northport, and Marsden Maritime Holdings, which owns a lot of it, has reported its highest-ever level of inquiries.
Even Goff confirms he wants the cars gone. "Yep, I want the land back and utilised in a better way than for cars."
Why are 250,000 cars a year offloaded on to the Auckland wharves and parked up there for two or three days at a time? Because the car carriers find it convenient and we think that's okay even though they wreck the waterfront. That's a pretty good symbol of the problem with the Auckland port.
They also point to the way to find a solution: Think differently. Electric rail, freight hubs, stop trying to squeeze everything through the middle of the city.
At Northport, right now, they are developing a system for processing cars right near the wharf, which they can do because they have the land. Then they'll put them on dedicated rail wagons, with electric engines, hundreds of cars at a time, to roll south through the newly enlarged tunnels of the Northland railway.
How long before we look back in wonder that we failed to grasp the staggering efficiency in that? Or ask how we could possibly have thought it was a good idea to store cars on the Auckland wharves?
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.
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.