Freeing up valuable Auckland waterfront land could be an incentive to move Ports of Auckland's operations to the Port of Tauranga, or Northport near Whangārei, but the rail network could be a deciding factor.
The possibilities were key options discussed in the first report released today by the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy working group.
The investigation was commissioned by the government to consider ways to improve freight movements into and out of the upper North Island, and to consider how to make the supply chain more beneficial for the country.
The group has already heard from 28 industry stakeholders, including the ports, local councils, the road freight industry and importers and exporters.
Some raised concerns that the three upper North Island ports had overlapping roles, and cooperation was being lost to competition.
All of the submitters wanted a rail system operating from the ports, and all were concerned with the cost of moving freight.
Freight companies said congestion was their biggest issue, and most cared less about where imports arrive into the country, and more about good infrastructure. Most submitters said infrastructure investment had been neglected.
The Auckland Council, Ports of Auckland (owned by Auckland Council), and the Auckland Chamber of Commerce told the group the city's port will be moved, but when and where to are not yet clear.
Ports of Auckland takes up 77 hectares of prime Auckland CBD waterfront land, valued at $732 million on the book - though other sales in the area indicate it could sell for much more.
It is the largest container and car import point into New Zealand, serving the largest concentration of people.
But there are strong arguments that the social and commercial value of the land now supercedes its use as a port. And if used differently it could bring in more money and make Auckland a more attractive place to live. This could include waterfront hotels, offices, open spaces, apartments or a new stadium.
There is "massive social, cultural, environmental and economic value that would be created by transforming this property into a globally iconic waterfront", the report said.
Possible locations on the Firth of Thames or West Coast were discounted by the working group because the Coromandel Peninsula was under-developed, and a West Coast option had been labelled as "not viable" by marine insurers.
In Auckland and Tauranga the ports' operations in urban areas sometimes caused tension with residents, including complaints Port of Tauranga freight contributed to traffic congestion and caused dust. However, Northport is separated from urban areas.
The rail network from the Port of Tauranga relies on the rail line through the potentially vulnerable Kaimai tunnel, but the rail network to Whangārei is in a state of decline, with no connection to Northport, and the rail network through Auckland can't fit freight containers.
Regional Development and Associate Transport Minister Shane Jones said the investigation met a coalition agreement to explore the feasibility of moving the Ports of Auckland, giving Northport serious consideration and upgrading rail in Northland.
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said there were major benefits to relocating the port, but a full and thorough analysis of all the possible options was needed.
"I think clearly in some parts of the government there is a preference for Northport. Whatever decision is made, it has to be supported by very strong, very robust evidence.
"[The Northport option] will require the building of a spur railway line to the harbour, it will require retunnelling of all the major tunnels on the route from Northland to Auckland, and it will require a third track across Auckland, from West Auckland across the city. All of that will run into some billion dollars, plus the investment that must be made in Northport itself, which currently is quite a small port apart form the oil refinery, so those things have to be weighed up.
"Auckland businesses, consumers and the country as a whole would not support any case other than one that can be a robust case to show that this makes economic and environmental sense to move the port to the preferred location."
Freight companies stress need for better infrastructure
Freight companies who made submissions said congestion was their biggest issue, and most cared less about where imports arrive into the country, and more about good infrastructure.
One importer told the group that importing to Whangārei or Tauranga instead of Auckland might cost more to get their goods to Auckland destinations, but this could be easily matched by lower costs for storage yards near the port.
The working group's "rail-centric view does Northland no favours", said Annabel Young, executive director of the New Zealand Shipping Federation.
Constructing a dry dock should be considered, says Shipping Federation boss
It had missed noting other opportunities available at Northport, including unloading international shipping to smaller domestic ships, which was common in many other countries, or construction of a dry dock.
"A dry dock in Whangārei would be a win-win for both the city and New Zealand as a whole. The lack of a dry dock is hurting this country due to the environmental and financial costs that have to be incurred when our coastal shipping operators are required to dry dock their vessels off-shore in Singapore or Australia.
"There are already cases where overseas ships are avoiding New Zealand due to the toxic combination of high biosecurity cleanliness requirements for a vessels hull and secondly, the inability to clean a ship in a dock that does not fit in the Devonport dry dock."
National's Transport Spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said the appointment of Wayne Brown, former mayor of Northland, to chair the working party showed "a thinly disguised preference for massive investment in rail between South Auckland and Northport."
Investigating the efficiency of freight movements across the upper North Island and planning for the long term were smart moves, he said, but the direction of the interim progress report showed the outcome was "effectively predetermined".
"It also seems to be peddling the concept of a nationalised ports monopoly in the upper North Island, but there is no evidence or analysis to back up the suggestion that such a nationalised monopoly would be more efficient than current arrangements," said Mr Goldsmith.
But the Rail and Maritime Transport Union said shifting Auckland's port operations to Northport was a no-brainer.
The union's general secretary Wayne Butson said Northport was the country's only natural deep water port, and exports from Northland were increasing.
The ports in the upper North Island export about half of the country's total exports (by weight), and are the landing point for about two-thirds of imports. Imports and exports are expected to increase over time, though exports could fall as forestry stocks decrease.
The working group has commissioned more thorough studies for each of the three upper North Island ports, assessing their land values and whether the land use is optimal.