The Ports of (outside) Auckland

Can candidates for the Auckland mayoralty next year find a way to move the Ports of Auckland? If so, where to and at what cost?

On a recent Sunday I was at dinner in the restaurant in the old Seafarers' building on Quay St, Auckland. Through big picture windows we looked out over the Waitemata harbour on a beautiful spring day. We could see the boats on the water, the houses sprinkled around the North Shore... but the entire foreground was dominated by hundreds of cars parked on Marsden Wharf, flanked by massive container cranes.

What a waste of one of the great harbours of the world.

In less than 12 month, we will be choosing a new Auckland Council and Mayor. What vision of the city will the candidates have? Or will the whole campaign revolve around rates, debt and the numbers of council staff?

Let’s hope not. I am sure that there must be many like me who want to hear about a broader vision for Auckland. Are we prepared to do the things that will indisputably make Auckland the region's third city after Sydney and Melbourne?

To attract world class events, to be the home of world class companies, to ensure that we are among the most attractive cities in the world. At the moment we barely cut the mustard on any one of these criteria, certainly not compared to the possibilities for our city. What happened to our ambition to host Formula One? Where is our world class stadium? What happened to the second runway?

And what about our waterfront?

At the moment the entrance to our harbour is a massive container terminal, hardly what one expects of a world class city. Other cities including Sydney, London, and San Francisco have all shifted their major container port activity out of the city centre. Such a shift will still mean that cruise ships will continue to use the downtown terminals. And it will be easier to expand the ferry terminal. It is already reaching capacity at peak times.

We could do the same as these other cities, and we don’t need to wait 30 years to do so. It could be done in the next five to ten years, provided the city leaders had the ambition and gumption to do so.

There are 61 hectares in the Bledisloe Fergusson port precinct. It has a 2014 valuation of $365 million, which is $6 million per hectare. There are market valuations closer to $1.5 billion, based on the uses that the land could be put to as the prime entrance to the city.

Imagine a waterfront with some spectacular commercial buildings, a stadium located at the back of the precinct to tie in with the Vector Arena, and some of the most desirable residential real estate in New Zealand. And perhaps something unique to showcase Auckland right at the entrance to Waitemata harbour.

Of course a new container terminal will be required, and they don’t come cheap; maybe $4-5 billion.

Both Tauranga and Marsden Port are too far away. A sea city like Auckland, growing to as many as 3 million people by 2050, needs its own port. There are realistic alternatives. Manukau Harbour, if the issues of the bar can be dealt with, or the Firth of Thames perhaps near Orere Point are options. There has to be enough land for expansion, and motorway and rail connections are required.

How do we pay the $5 billion that will be required? Well, nearly 30% would come from the sale of land at the existing container terminal. No doubt quite a lot of the existing infrastructure, cranes, etc. can be disassembled and shifted.

Does the City Council have to stump up with the additional $3 billion? The answer is no.

Just as other New Zealand ports have private capital, so can the new Port of Auckland. Some of the capital can be raised locally, there could an international shareholder with expertise in ports, and some of the funds can be borrowed.

What is required is political will. This need not be something that is deferred to our children. The next political leaders in Auckland can make this decision. We will find out whether they are up to it over the next few months.