• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Photo/Getty Images

Why Auckland's port dilemma is going to cost a fortune either way

If you live south of the Bombay Hills, you might, instead of reading about the arguments for relocating the port of Auckland, choose to reach for the crossword instead. But you should realise that wherever you live in New Zealand, what our leaders decide to do with the port could cost you zillions.

The basic problem, according to pro-movers, is that the port takes up a large chunk of the otherwise beautiful foreshore of the Waitematā Harbour. Over the years, port activities have encroached further and further into the harbour, and fleets of trucks moving freight from the wharves clog the city’s motorways. Add to that the blight on the city from the ugly expanse of freshly imported cars, and that there would be more profit for Auckland Council from renting the land than using it for a port.

The relocation lobby, led by New Zealand First, wants the port moved to Northland, thus injecting cash and jobs into that region, while creating space for a prime new retail and residential precinct in Auckland.

The remainers, led principally by the port itself, argue shifting it to Northport, near Whangārei, would cost zillions and be the ruin of Auckland, Northland and the country’s finances. The port company suggests, instead, looking at the Firth of Thames as the port’s new home.

The trouble with that suggestion is that environmentalists would be bound to oppose the new four-lane highway and railway line that would have to be built to service the port, and the amount of dredging in the Firth of Thames to accommodate shipping. Oh, yes, there would also be the small matter of building an entirely new port. Probable cost? Zillions.

Might there be a hint of duplicity in the port suggesting a whoppingly expensive environmentally unsound option that would probably entangle the move in litigation for much of the rest of the century?

Not that the pro-movers’ preference for Northport is likely to be any cheaper. It would require a costly rail spur to the port from the North Auckland Line to Whangārei, not to mention upgrading the entire line, including enlarging tunnels so containers can fit through. Then there would be the question of whether to put another freight line through the city to storage at the inland port in South Auckland or build a new inland facility north of the city. A new northern on-land port would pour most of the trucks that clog the Southern Motorway onto the Northern and Northwestern motorways. Cost? Zillions.

I use the nebulous figure “zillions” because the two sides are claiming vastly different cost-benefit amounts. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it will cost the country billions of dollars, despite the value unlocked by vacating 55ha of prime inner-city waterfront land.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff might well take heart from rental returns to the city from such a development when he compares it with profits from the existing smaller area of development around Viaduct Harbour.

There’s no escaping that the port has to move because it is close to capacity and unlikely to continue to get permission to dredge the channel and expand.

But who pays? The Government would argue Auckland should fork out. Auckland would argue it can’t afford it and the Government should pay. For “Government” read taxpayers; for “Auckland”, ratepayers.

This column was first published in the December 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.