Northland councils' backing of a plan to extend the four-lane motorway north of Auckland through to Whangarei is astonishing, Northland MP Winston Peters says.
NZTA was about to start the lengthy planning process needed to extend the four-lane route to run all the way from Auckland to Whangarei.
The agency already has approval to extend it from Puhoi to Warkworth, and the next leg was to be Warkworth to Wellsford.
But Northland councils, which are now collaborating on roading needs, have persuaded the agency to bring forward planning for the last stretch, Wellsford to Whangarei.
NZTA Northland director Ernst Zollner said that work was now set to begin.
"Towards the middle of the year we will be seeking public feedback on long-term plans for the whole Auckland to Whangarei corridor," he said.
"It's not just the Road of National Significance from Puhoi to Wellsford, but also from Wellsford to Whangarei. So we really look forward to showing the communities of Northland and North Auckland what the future of this critical corridor could look like."
Mr Zollner said the Transport Agency would present its initial ideas in August or September.
Council leaders have applauded the agency's decision but Mr Peters said they must be naïve to think that the motorway will materialise.
He said eight years after announcing the motorway extension as far as Warkworth, south of Wellsford, the government had yet to build a single metre.
The region's councils should instead be lobbying for a rail link to Northport at Marsden Point, and the upgrading of the line to Auckland, he said.
Northland Regional Council chair Bill Shepherd said rail may yet have a revival, but it made sense at this stage to support spending on roads, rather than pushing for a rail link to the port.
A council statement said 99 percent of Northland's freight, and virtually all its tourist traffic, travelled by road.
Peters champions Northport
Meanwhile, Mr Peters said Northport, near Whangarei, was the logical choice to take over from the Port of Auckland if the latter could not expand or was forced to move.
He said councillors must be dreaming if they could not see Northport's potential as Auckland runs out of space.
"They could be New Zealand's number one port. Auckland's port is choked off now, the people won't allow it to develop."
But Northport has not so far been considered an option in the Auckland port debate, while Muriwai or Firth of Thames had been listed among potential new sites.
Mr Peters described those options as ridiculous. He said the Northland port needed little dredging and has plenty of flat land nearby to store cars and containers.
"The only opportunity now for Aucklanders is Northport, not some silly idea of putting one in the Kaipara or at Muriwai ... it should be at Northport, upgrade our rail and do things in the way that a commonsense business operation would."
But Auckland Council chair of regional strategy George Wood warned the city would not let port business go north without a fight.
"You've only got to look at things like the car freighting business. When those boats come in they can unload up to 8000 containers, and then all the trucks have got to come down and get them, pick them up, take them away.
"Then they have to be stored, mainly in south Auckland, and there's a huge number of people that are working in that industry. So if Auckland didn't have that business it would impact on a lot of people's livelihoods."
Mr Wood said the car import business alone involved many hundreds of jobs.
Auckland Council's Port Future study is due out for public comment by the end of next month.