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Wellington's CentrePort seeks to join big-league ports, dredging for 8,000 TEU ships

CentrePort plans to seek resource consents to dredge the shipping channel in Wellington harbour to make room for container vessels almost twice the size of those accommodated now, staking a claim to be among a handful of hub ports in a future of fewer, larger foreign ship visits.

The project could cost between $20 million and $40 million and would be funded from existing facilities, said chief executive Blair O'Keefe. It would involve deepening two sections of the shipping channel at the harbour entrance and berth to accommodate ships with a draught of up to 14.5 metres from 11.5m currently. Some 8.6 million cubic metres of material would be dredged from the harbour entrance and is proposed to be dumped at a site in Fitzroy Bay, several kilometres out to sea.

"Our view is that New Zealand needs a north, centre and southern hub structure, which reflects where the population and trade base are," O'Keefe said. "This is driven by commercial requirements - it's important for the regional economy."

CentrePort is about 77 percent owned by Wellington Regional Council and 23 percent by Horizons Regional Council, whose territory extends from Horowhenua and Tararua to include Ruapehu in the central North Island. The company has established inland freight hubs in New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Whanganui and Blenheim. That allows it to draw from an area that makes up 27 percent of New Zealand's gross domestic product.

New Zealand's biggest ports are racing to tie up the nation's flow of freight, via inland hubs, alliances and partnerships with transport companies. Port of Tauranga, which is spending $50 million to deepen its channels, established a hub in South Auckland, invested in Timaru's port infrastructure and teamed up with Kotahi, a freight venture between Fonterra Cooperative Group and Silver Fern Farms. It is also developing an inland port on the southern outskirts of Christchurch.

Last year Ports of Auckland, Napier Port and storage and logistics group Icepak New Zealand set up a joint venture to build an inland port and freight hub in Palmerston North. Port Otago also has consents to deepen its harbour channels to allow for 8,000 TEU (20-foot equivalent unit container) vessels.

The Ministry of Transport's Future Freight Scenario report last year set out future scenarios for shipping operations around New Zealand, ranging from the status quo of about 10 ports capable of handling the current 4,500 TEU vessels through to four hub ports able to handle 8,000 TEU ships or even just one mega-port at Tauranga. That would leave the nation's other ports as feeders, or spokes. Some 99.5 percent of New Zealand's trade by weight is shipped through seaports.

The report's preferred option was for four hub ports, Ports of Auckland, Tauranga, Lyttelton Port and Port Otago, with CentrePort seen as a secondary feeder port along with Taranaki, Napier, Nelson, Timaru and Bluff.

Tauranga has seven container cranes to Wellington's two. O'Keefe said the port has plans to add a third container crane "when the need arises".

CentrePort plans to begin consulting with stakeholders including iwi, aiming to lodge a consent application mid-year. The port plans to request a referral to a Board of Inquiry via the Environmental Protection Authority.