Port of Tauranga chair David Pilkington says the situation has become "desperate" for New Zealand's main export gateway to get the all clear this year to start building a long-planned container wharf extension.
After nearly a year waiting the listed port company has received a July Environment Court date for a resource management consent hearing for the extension.
Pilkington said that was great news but with the port due to run out of capacity within three years, it could not afford to weather a long appeals process should the project get the court's tick mid year.
"We will be looking to the Government to step in if there are appeals. This is an economic necessity, we need ministers to say they are not going to let this get dragged on like the dredging consent process. Getting consent for dredging [for big container ships access] was a five year process from the regional council to the Supreme Court."
That process ended in March 2013 when then conservation minister Nick Smith gave the green light for the port to widen and deepen its shipping channels, for access for larger container vessels. Smith said at the time he had granted resource consent after local iwi blocked the plan under the old Resource Management Act for four years.
Concerned leaders of New Zealand's primary export sectors spoke out in the Herald in January about the threat to the port's container handling capacity after the extension was declined for the Government's shovel-ready and Covid fast track infrastructure schemes in 2020 and 2021 respectively.
Progress towards the extension, planned since 2018 and likely to take up to 2.5 years to build, lost a year through these unsuccessful processes, leaving the Environment Court the only remaining avenue for the application.
Pilkington said the delays and prospect of drawn-out appeals were frustrating.
"Here is something quite tangible we can do to significantly improve Upper North Island freight flows. It was ready-made for the shovel ready programme. We were ready to apply for resource consent as soon as we came out of lockdown, exactly what the Government talked about wanting."
Sector participants accused Government leaders of hypocrisy in pointing to supply chain issues when defending New Zealand's concerning inflation rate, while doing nothing to support the port's bid to extend its cargo handling capacity.
The Herald approached Transport Minister Michael Wood and Environment Minister David Parker on whether they would step in if the consent process drags on.
Their offices said as the matter was before the court they could not comment on this or respond to the expressed frustration.
Port chief executive Leonard Sampson last year warned the port would likely run out of capacity in 2024-2025 if 7.4 per cent average annual compound freight growth continued at the port.
A 2018 analysis by Netherlands container terminal experts TBA identified the port had total capacity for around 1.5m TEU (twenty foot equivalent) containers. It's now handling 1.25m a year.
The extension, which would not extend into the harbour or disrupt tidal flows, would be built where there is now a rock wall and container storage area. It would provide capacity for an extra 800,000 to 1m containers.
The consent application is for a total of 380m of berth development at Sulphur Point and the Mount Maunganui wharves opposite. But the priority job is a first stage 220m extension to the existing terminal wharf at Sulphur Point.
The build was originally priced at $68.5m but with the delays is now likely to cost significantly more due to soaring construction and material costs, said Pilkington.
"People might say why is there not an alternative proposal so you can get more support? But we can't mitigate what we are doing, nor can we do something else. There is no other option. It's this or nothing.
"It's really quite desperate that we get the go-ahead [this year]. If the court decides against it, or subsequent appeals push this out you will definitely see an impact on export volumes."
Pilkington, who steps down as chair this year, said he and port executives had had "numerous" meetings with ministers and government officials.
"But there is a reluctance to get in behind it and say from a broader economic perspective, this needs to happen."