As New Zealand’s largest port, Port of Tauranga is playing a vital role in keeping cargo moving throughout the global disruption and local upheavals caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. And it has ambitious plans, which would strengthen its key place in NZ’s transport system.
Fortunately for our export industries, the port overcame the effects of the pandemic’s impact on the international supply chain which included extensive shipping delays, service cancellations, scarcity of supply and volume volatility. This has led to congestion in the container terminal and at its MetroPort facility in Auckland.
The situation was at times exacerbated at times by operational challenges at Ports of Auckland, particularly in the first half of the financial year.
While there were 106 fewer container vessel visits between September 2020 and June 2021, the average cargo exchange per container vessel increased 21.7% due to the reduced vessel frequency and shippers maximising available capacity.
The port had near-record surges of import container volumes between October last year and February. The shortage of rail capacity to handle this resulted in week-long delays in transferring import containers by rail to Auckland.
KiwiRail provided additional trains from May, which has helped ease the pressure.
But container vessels are still arriving off window and taking longer to load and unload.
Since October last year, the port has had a 51% increase in static container volume in the Sulphur Point terminal – that’s the equivalent of around 5,000 additional 20-foot containers sitting in the terminal at any point in time.
Chairman David Pilkington says it is simply not efficient to run a container terminal at more than 100% capacity and productivity has suffered, the average crane rate dropping from 35.8 to 29.7 moves per hour.
Costs have risen, including straddle carrier diesel consumption and the related carbon emissions.
Pilkington told the company’s annual meeting last week of the problems the port is encountering with its expansion plans: progress has been frustratingly slow due to the red tape involved in the resource consenting process, he said.
“We require Resource Consent for our proposed Stella Passage Project, involves extending berths to the south of the existing wharves. The $68.5m first stage at the container terminal will create an estimated 368 jobs through the construction phase, and more than 81 permanent jobs after completion.
“This is a project of national significance, in that it will bring urgently needed capacity and resilience to NZ’s supply chain and go a long way to reduce the pressure on Ports of Auckland congestion and operating issues.
“No government funding is being sought for this project, however in the hope that we might expedite the resource consenting process, we applied last year for consideration under the government’s ‘shovel ready’ and ‘fast track’ consenting programmes aimed at helping the economy recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Unfortunately we were turned down for both. It was suggested by government ministers that we seek direct referral to the Environment Court as a means of accelerating the process. This has recently been agreed by the Regional Council consenting authority and we now wait – once more – for a Court date.
“Throughout, we have had extensive dialogue with local iwi and hapu and we are confident we can avoid or mitigate any potential cultural or environmental impacts from the development. This project is simply essential if New Zealand exporters are to preserve access to international markets in future”
PiIkington says it is particularly pertinent that the recently released draft 30-year Infrastructure Strategy from the NZ Infrastructure Commission noted that approval for key infrastructure projects was subject to more widespread appeal than virtually all other OECD countries.
‘‘I urge the Government in the proposed overhaul of the RMA legislation to address this.In the meantime, we are pursuing our plans to automate container storage at the terminal to increase our capacity within the current land footprint.
“Our automation project will utilise well-proven technology that has been in use for many years at some of the world’s most efficient ports.
‘‘The future freight handling capacity of inland freight hubs will also help us increase our capacity. Our joint venture inland port with Tainui Group Holdings at Ruakura is under development, with opening scheduled for the middle of 2022.
“Our cornerstone shareholder, Quayside Holdings, is also developing the 148-hectare Rangiuru Business Park less than half an hour’s drive from the port, at the junction of the Eastern, Western and Southern Bay of Plenty.
“It will be an important addition to the region’s supply chain infrastructure.
The government has indicated that it plans to address the Upper North Island supply chain as part of a national freight strategy. The Infrastructure Commission has listed this as a priority in its draft infrastructure strategy provided to the Minister a couple of weeks ago”.
Pilkington pointed out that the government has commissioned another report on the future location of Ports of Auckland in its current location and the Minister has said there will be a decision by the 2023 election.
“It has long been our view that a container port can keep operating on a smaller Auckland site while cargo growth can be absorbed by both Northport and Port of Tauranga”.
Not surprisingly, a feature of the annual meeting were the tributes paid to Mark Cairns, the chief executive who retired during the year. Port of Tauranga, under Cairns’ guidance, grew from a regional bulk export port to NZ’s international cargo hub and most successful port.
In his 18 years Cairns has achieved the highest port productivity rates in Australasia while maintaining an industry-leading safety record.