OPINION: The case for moving the Auckland port to Whangārei is apparently compelling. So compelling in fact that none of us are yet allowed to see it.
The final report of three in what appears to be a very long softening up exercise was received by the Government around a fortnight ago – and it won’t be released until Cabinet has decided on it. In the meantime we’ve been treated to a round of name calling. The study’s lead author is reportedly calling people who disagree with him ‘idiots’ and ‘vested interests’, while chief lobbyist for the idea, Shane Jones, labels the current port CEO a cowardly renegade.
Respected economists NZIER and Castalia have provided critiques of the proposal, based on the earlier reports. While funded by the current port (cue vested interests attack), they highlight many useful questions like the vulnerability of the proposed new land transport corridors, the big increase in transport emissions caused by the shift, and the true costs involved (over $10 billion).
They rightly ask why Whangarei is the favoured location now when just three years ago it ranked 12th most suitable, according to the last port study that used the same set of consultants.
More basically there is a straightforward reason why we shouldn’t attempt to shift Auckland’s port to Whangārei, and that is geography. It is simply the wrong location.
Firstly, it is too far away. The whole point of ports in port cities is to unload and load the freight close to the action, to reduce land transport costs and delays. Much of the freight that comes across the current port is utilised within 20km of it, much of that south of the Waitemata. Being close makes sense. Berthing it hours away and freighting it in by truck and train doesn’t.
Yes, Sydney and Melbourne shifted their ports, but nothing like as far. Sydney’s container port at Port Botany is 15 kilometres from their CBD. Melbourne’s container terminal is 8km from the CBD. If this project went ahead, Auckland’s port would be over 150km from the CBD.
The second geographic problem is the shape of Auckland city. It is built on a narrow piece of land just a few kilometres wide, hemmed in by two beautiful harbours which, as Aucklanders know, already make it hard to get to work each day.
Imagine instead of all the freight landing by sea near the middle of the city and radiating out from there – you land it out the opposite side of the city from where most people live and work and then use trucks and trains to freight it back down from the north and through the narrow isthmus across already over-worked land transport corridors to places like Onehunga, Wiri, and further south.
We would experience a whole new level of road and rail congestion in the north and west, and no reduction in the centre or south.
The third geographic issue relates to the area south of Auckland. Fully half of New Zealand’s population (roughly 2½ million) lives north of Taupō, around a million outside of Auckland. Only 180,000 of those live in Northland. Currently businesses serving the upper North Island have the choice of two ports each roughly 120km from Hamilton, and competition helps keep freight prices reasonable.
Shifting one of them 150km further away over the other side of Auckland would effectively reduce their options to one, and undoubtedly increase their costs.
It simply makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to reduce the competitiveness of Auckland and the upper North Island in this way.
Northland definitely needs infrastructure investment. It was shamefully ignored for decades. The last government started with the four-laning of State Highway 1 to Warkworth (under construction) and Wellsford (currently abandoned). There was the much-maligned replacement of one-way bridges – four of which have been or are being built, and upgrades to the highways north of Whangārei.
The infrastructure required in Northland doesn’t rely on the excuse of an ill-conceived plan to shift Auckland’s port. The most significant project, the four-laning of State Highway 1 to Whangārei needs to happen anyway, especially through the vulnerable choke points of Dome Valley and Te Hana. Building that over the next 10 years would unlock massive development opportunities for all of Northland, just as the Waikato Expressway has done for its region.
So I have a suggestion. Let’s re-start the Northland expressway project and maybe even start shifting the Navy up to Whangārei (which has far fewer ramifications for the wider economy). Let’s build the third main railway line at Wiri, sort out the Grafton interchange with the current port, and crack on with a third harbour crossing. Then come back and talk about the port again in a decade’s time. There is a lot to get on with now without this hugely expensive poorly argued diversion.
* Steven Joyce is a former Minister of Finance.