Next steps for New Zealand

View of Ports of Auckland. Credit: Ports of Auckland

From Otago in the south to Auckland in the north, New Zealand is investing in ports across its two islands in line with projected growth

A port relocation dilemma, dredging, shifting operations to newly reclaimed land, constructing wharf decks, creating an artificial reef, and future-proofing are among the issues and actions that make up a dynamic port scene in New Zealand.

Altogether, these activities present an overarching dynamic: ports are changing to meet new contingencies, serve growing markets, and develop business opportunities in the country.
The Ports of Auckland might be the site of the largest port infrastructure project of all. There have been calls to move the port from its current location in the city of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island, and use the site to develop 77 ha (770,000 m2) of coveted waterfront space.

Moving the port at some point may be likely, but how and to where have been matters of contention for years. Various proposals about future sites have been put forward, including the Upper North Island Supply Chain Study that was commissioned by the national government and released in late 2019. It recommended that freight operations be moved to Northport in Whangarei, currently a three-berth bulk port roughly 145 km north of the current Auckland port site. Northport reportedly would be expanded with dredging and a new container terminal within 14 years.

However, some argue that the current site would be a tough act to follow. Matt Ball, spokesman for the Ports of Auckland, said, “The current port is close to the market it serves, already has the infrastructure, and has no limitations on capacity thanks to automation and other technical innovations. Every other site is farther away and would require a large amount of new infrastructure to be built.”

There are other concerns as well. The cost of the new port and the extra distance over land that goods will have to travel make it hard for any new port location to be economically advantageous, and all are more environmentally damaging, Ball said.

The reported cost to move to an expanded Northport, which also would entail significant upgrades to rail, would be about USD6.5 billion. Supporters for the move reportedly highlighted the advantages that could come from it: reduced traffic; opening up coveted waterfront space for major developments, creating 2,000 jobs, and net economic benefits in the long term. Such claims are countered by a 2019 economic study, which was commissioned by the Ports of Auckland. That study warned that closing the port would reduce national gross domestic product by USD759 million annually and cost local consumers USD58.8 million more for imports each year.

Site specific

Tony Gibson, CEO of the Ports of Auckland, disputed the findings of the North Island study on the port’s website. While he is not opposed to the move, he wrote that all stakeholders owe it to citizens to explore viable options, and that relocating to Northport was not valid for logistical, economic, and environmental reasons.

According to the 2016 Port Future Study – a long-term strategic planning report conducted by a working group of various stakeholders for the Auckland Council – the potential locations under consideration are at Manukau Harbour, the Firth of Thames bay, and Muriwai Beach.

The report noted the need for further, extensive consideration of factors that include navigation, safety, and engineering requirements; funding; and competitiveness. The report also advised studying the environmental, social, and cultural impacts of shifting to Firth of Thames.

There may be viable options at the current port location, such as expanding berths to meet future multicargo and cruise needs. However, this proposal has raised local concerns. Another factor to consider, according to the study, is “competing use for city centre waterfront space”.

In response Ports of Auckland released a 30-year master plan, in which it states, “There is talk about moving the port, but finding the right site, getting consent, funding and building it will take decades. Meanwhile, Auckland’s population keeps growing and Aucklanders need access to the goods that come through the port.”

Accordingly, the port is developing projects to meet these demands, and generally boost efficiency and productivity:

Installing automated straddle carriers at its container terminal. The port indicated either hybrid or partial carriers, with workers still operating the equipment “between our cranes and the yard”.

Deepening the S-shaped, Waitemata Navigation Channel waterway from its current 12.5 m depth at its shallowest to a new 15.5 m. This would enable the port to go from servicing 5,000 teu container vessels to 7,000 teu within three years, and possibly 12,000 teu New Panamax ships at some point. The port authority stated the project would deploy mechanical dredging to remove material that consists mostly of mud and other soft material, which will be deposited at an established disposal site at sea.

Lyttleton investment

Major works are under way at Lyttelton Port near Christchurch in the Canterbury region of South Island. It handles, among others, import/export, container, coal, and bulk and conventional breakbulk operations. In its 2018 annual review report, the port stated that freight volumes at Canterbury “are forecast to double in the next 15 years”. As such the port is implementing an ambitious long-term plan to support the region’s growth.

The initiatives include expanding and deepening the shipping channel serving Lyttelton, adding 16 straddle carriers to the container terminal, upgrading an oil berth, and constructing a new cruise wharf. The new wharf project, worth USD35.4 million, is set to open in late 2020. It will replace a cruise wharf that was damaged by an earthquake in 2011.

According to the port, the new wharf is designed to “withstand significant seismic events” and is being constructed with piling procedures that minimise noise effects on marine life.
The overall strategy is to move operations from their current sites to the east, at Te Awaparahi Bay, where there is space for continuing redevelopment. Therefore, Lyttelton Port is reclaiming 34 ha of land at the bay.

Here, a new container terminal will be built, which will be three times larger than the port’s current container terminal. The project will help the port “handle the future growth in containers … (and) will also allow some of the general cargo operations to move from the inner harbour onto the current container terminal”.

According to the port, dredging removed soft seabed materials from Te Awaparahi Bay, which reduced the settlement time for fill by about five years. The removal of unsuitable material has been followed by fill operations, with 10 of the total 34 ha already completed.

Technicians now are reclaiming another 6 ha and once complete, will bring overall reclamation about halfway to completion. Preliminary landside work, including road and rail upgrades, has been done.

A view of Napier Port CEO Todd Dawson in excavator at port project groundbreaking. Credit: Richard Brimer

Space and servicing

Elsewhere in New Zealand, other current and imminent port projects address the nation’s diverse needs. At Port Otago in South Island, an extension project on an existing multipurpose wharf, constructed as a deck atop 138 concrete piles, was completed in 2018. HEB Construction was the contractor for the work, which added 135 m in length to the port’s wharf. This project was worth USD14.5 million.

At Port Nelson, construction is now under way to provide space for forestry, cruise, fishing, produce, and container operations on the northern tip of South Island. The port believes this will generate “economic benefits and future-proof … import and export sectors”. As reported in DPC March 2020 issue, the USD13.2 million project entails demolishing the Main Wharf North, which was so dilapidated that its fuel berth was moved, making it inoperable since 2016.

The demolition will make way for a 100-m -long section of the wharf that – combined with the port’s abutting Main Wharf South – will service 300 m long cruise ships and 260–270 m long cargo vessels. McConnell Dowell was awarded the contract in 2019 to construct the new Main Wharf North, which will be built to withstand earthquake damage. Port officials said that the initiative will mitigate noise issues by moving traffic farther from neighbouring residential areas. The new wharf is slated to open before 2021.

Construction work aimed at growth is now under way at Napier Port: a container, liquid, and dry bulk cargo-handling terminal and cruise ship facility on Hawke’s Bay at the eastern coast of the nation’s North Island. A container terminal/wharf expansion project, worth USD109–119.8 million, is designed to boost capacity and efficiency at the port.

The expansion is part of the port’s 30-year master plan, which maps out solutions needed to handle bigger freight volume and vessels. This plan includes buying and developing land for containers and possibly additional uses, and building an inland freight hub at Manawatu. Construction of the hub is a joint effort project with the Ports of Auckland and trucking company Halls Transport.

The port indicates that its ongoing 6 Wharf initiative, which it calls “absolutely critical to support future growth”, will help “increase the port’s operational resilience and efficiency by easing congestion constraints and reducing secondary vessel movements, such as temporarily moving vessels off the wharves to accommodate larger vessels, by an estimated 100 movements per year”.

HEB Construction is the contractor, and subcontractor Heron Construction & Dredging Limited will carry out dredging, which will create a turning basin.

Rock relocation

The 6 Wharf structure will be a 350-m-long deck atop 400 piles. Michel de Vos, Napier Port’s general manager of infrastructure services, is leading the project and informed DPC that piling has begun. Construction began in early February this year.

When DPC spoke to de Vos, the current work involved “removing 200 m of limestone rock and concrete slabs that form part of the revetment wall where 6 Wharf will be built”. He explained that technicians will use a barge-mounted excavator to dismantle the revetment in stages. Once “the boulders are removed, the excavator backfills the area with (material) to build a foundation for sheet piles to be installed”, he described.

The limestone rocks will be loaded onto the barge and moved to a site near Pania Reef, where the rocks will be used to create an artificial reef to provide habitat and protection for fish and aquatic plants. Although it is unclear precisely how much rock will be needed, the port stated it has been given approval to place as much as 20,000 m2. Pania Reef is expected to be established in 2020, with permissions also in place to potentially – and if there are enough rocks remaining – build a second artificial reef at another site.

Community crossover

As such steps indicate, and as the port emphasised, the 6 Wharf initiative is a collaborative effort sensitive to local culture and the environment.

Throughout the process, port officials and personnel worked with the region’s Mana Whenua Māori community and recreational and commercial fishers, and kept local residents informed. De Vos pointed out the port carried out a series of environmental measures, including managing and monitoring water quality during dredging and protecting little blue penguins if construction activities disturb their nests.

Building the wharf amid vessel traffic is another priority, and work is being carried out in consultation with detailed management plans, he added.

Officials are working towards a late 2022 opening of the new wharf. Napier Port CEO Todd Dawson has hailed the 6 Wharf project as “a huge milestone” and “a critical piece of infrastructure that will help support growth for our customers and (the region’s) economy for many years to come”.