Auckland port study packed with 'political posers'

6:30 am on 30 June 2016

ANALYSIS: The long-awaited study into the future needs of Auckland's port will disappoint city politicians looking for compelling new insights into whether the council-owned port should stay or go.

The two sides of the Bledisloe Terminal (foreground) will be built 98 metres further into the harbour, with the port later hoping to reclaim the space between them.

Photo: SUPPLIED / Ports of Auckland

The Port Future Study is due to be released tomorrow but a copy obtained by RNZ underlines the uncertainty still surrounding most of the key issues.

The study overseen by a wideranging "consensus group" was launched a year ago in a bid to re-set heated political, public and legal debate over the place of Ports of Auckland on the city waterfront.

The catalyst was public protest and ultimately successful court action, which scuttled Ports of Auckland's intention to extend Bledisloe Wharf nearly 100 metres further into the harbour.

The political response was to put the port plans on ice, until a new study could shed light on whether and when the port might outgrow its waterfront location, and where it might go.

The Port Future Study, valuable though it is, tells the politicians largely what was already known.

When might the port run out of room? The container terminal as early as 2039, the mid-point in the range is 2055, and there's also the possibility the port may never outgrow the current site.

Where might it go? In order of favour by the group, the Manukau Harbour on the city's west coast, or the Firth of Thames to the south-east. But both options come with a list of major issues.

Manukau would need extensive dredging. Weather could close it occasionally, and without more detailed technical work, it can't be firmly recommended.

What about the short term needs? The group agrees a smaller than previously planned extension of Bledisloe Wharf is justified. This revives the possibility of legal challenges to necessary consents.

What might this all cost? The ballpark is $5 billion. Though the Firth of Thames will likely need major new transport infrastructure.

The study acknowledges the scale of the challenge, but points out to the politicians the risk of not starting early on decision-making, in the event that the port does outgrow its current site.

"Decisions must be made soon, in the context of uncertainties that cannot yet be resolved," is a line the councillors might want to mark with a highlighter.

There are shorter term decisions needed. Not just Bledisloe. But how to accommodate larger cruise ships, with one next summer already having to anchor in the harbour because it is too long.

Three months out from local body elections, the report is a sobering read for the politicians who must decide whether, when and how, to tackle one of the city's big long-term questions.