So we still can't decide what to do with the Auckland port. I have an idea, which I offer here for free, although when it gets to the full report stage, I want two million bucks. Because that's how much the Government spent on the latest report, released this week.
Move it to Port Waikato.
Don't laugh, it's just as sensible as the Manukau harbour, which that new report has recommended.
I ran the idea past Wayne Brown, who chaired the working group that produced the last report on the port, and he apologised for not thinking of it himself.
He suggested they could even dredge the Waikato River and have the ships go all the way to Hamilton. Take the cars straight up – they like cars in the Tron – and the containers, too. On the return journey, bring back water for us Aucklanders to clean our teeth and flush the toilet with.
Don't laugh. It still makes as much sense as the $2 million idea to move it to the Manukau.
What a wretched moment we've come to with planning for the Auckland port. The new report is the twentysomethingth in about the same number of years and basically it says: let's not do anything, and in case you don't agree, here's a really stupid option to waste your time and money deciding not to do.
It's a tragedy for Auckland, for Northland and for Tauranga, for the rest of the upper North Island and therefore the rest of the country, too.
You have to think any minister who wanted this whole thing buried under a pile of harbour sludge could not be happier. That would be Transport Minister Phil Twyford. He's always run screaming from the room when the future of the Auckland port comes up, flailing his elbows as he goes, to stop Auckland mayor Phil Goff beating him out the door.
The new report is by consultancy Sapere and was commissioned by the Ministry of Transport, following last year's report from Brown's committee, the Upper North Island Supply Chain (UNISC) strategy group. Twyford says officials will now do their own analysis of the "costs, risks, and uncertainties" of Sapere's recommendations.
When you don't like one report, you get another. And another. You bury the whole thing under a deep pile of sludge.
Why, by the way, is the Manukau idea so silly? Because it's full of that sludge. It's a shallow harbour with a treacherous sandbar on a wild coast on a wild sea.
All harbours have to do some dredging, but in the Manukau it would be massive and constant. You could clear that sandbar one week and the first big westerly blow would bring it right back.
UNISC reported that insurers would not cover container ships using the Manukau. End of story, they said. Sapere found an underwriter who wasn't so sure. It's a thin response to such a fundamental question.
The Manukau also has such enormous environmental and cultural barriers to overcome, it would be lucky even to get a consent, which Sapere did have the grace to admit.
But none of that reveals what's really wrong with the Sapere report.
The consultants claim to have looked ahead 60 years, which is good. Big infrastructure is all about a country's long-term resilience and prosperity.
But if you're planning for the future, what's the biggest factor you probably need to take account of?
It's climate change. Sapere used the words "climate change" or "global warming" in its report exactly zero times.
Zero. Why? Because it's an "economic analysis".
God save us from economists and all their fellow travellers who think like that. Actually, she might have to, because the way this port debate is going, the Government sure isn't up for it.
It's a great shame all Government infrastructure projects are not assessed within a climate-change framework, but that will happen as the Climate Change Commission gets up to speed. Still, you might think the Ministry of Transport would already have been at least minimally alert to the issue.
Goff has praised the Sapere report for being full of "facts". What does that really mean? We've been drowning in facts about the port for years, and everyone picks the ones they like.
Goff and Twyford have both said the UNISC report was biased because it favoured the NZ First preference for Northport. Brown denies it.
Besides, the major predecessor to UNISC, the 2015 Port Future Study consensus working group, did not even consider Northport. It was biased in favour of keeping the port in or near Auckland. Goff shares that bias today.
With infrastructure, a call for "facts" usually means a call for a "business case analysis" (BCA).
But if we really believed in BCAs, we'd build almost nothing. Intercity rail, cultural centres, sports stadiums, urban light rail, sewage and stormwater systems, dams and filtration plants and even most roads: as a rule, none of them have a good BCA.
But we build them anyway, when we decide we want what they will give us: security, economic opportunity, recreation facilities, cultural growth, environmental benefits. Quality of life. We take a rounded view.
The Sapere report says the Auckland port has capacity on its site for another 30 years and we don't need to plan anything for another 10 to 15 years. That invites us not to address any of the problems we currently face with the port, including the lost opportunity costs of moving, of jump-starting regional growth in Northland and of rethinking our entire freight strategy.
When the UNISC report came out last year its proposal to shift the bulk of operations to Northport got the headlines, but its core recommendation was a plan to shift the bulk of freight haulage, over time, onto rail.
To enable this, a new "inland port" or freight hub was proposed for northwest Auckland, connected by rail to other freight depots in south Auckland and the Waikato, and to the ports and expanded provincial rail lines at Tauranga and Whangārei.
Critics say why take the port away from the population, it just adds cost. That would be the marginal cost of 200km of rail from Northport when you've just shipped the goods 5000 nautical miles from Shenzhen. Negligible.
Leaving the port where it is will add cost of all kinds, notably in the extra roading required by an ever-growing number of trucks.
Shifting freight haulage to rail, especially if it's electric, is the key to reducing congestion on the motorways and to having cleaner air and fewer carbon emissions. It's the future. Sapere recognised that rail use could grow, but didn't analyse it or assume it will happen.
Why are some politicians so opposed to shifting the port? It's become a football, kicked bad-temperedly between Labour and NZ First. There's also a powerful business lobby that likes things the way they are – although, tellingly, it does not include all freight companies. Ports of Auckland leads this lobby, although it is publicly owned and has no mandate to do so.
Mainly, though, it's too hard. Politicians have to be brave, far-sighted and stubborn to champion change on such a scale.
What do we really want out of this? Isn't it the same as with everything we do in the post-Covid rebuild? To build resilience and prosperity.
How we do that is what we should be debating. The Sapere report, and the MOT and its minister, have done their best to wrench us away from this kind of thinking altogether.