OPINION: The notion of shifting the South Island ferry terminal from Picton to Clifford Bay has been in the air for decades. Clifford Bay was in fact an alternative site for the terminal even before the Picton one was built. After having been dormant for some time, the idea was revived again a couple of years ago, when the then transport minister, Steven Joyce, instructed his officials to evaluate the proposal. There was enough value in what the officials found that a rigorous, full-scale study was ordered. The announcement yesterday by the present Transport Minister, Gerry Brownlee, that that study has found the case for shifting to Clifford Bay is not good enough to justify the large investment required, should now lay the idea to rest for the foreseeable future.
The finding will be disappointing to some in Canterbury who had advocated for the shift. There would certainly have been some benefits to people travelling to and from Christchurch. A terminal at Clifford Bay would have cut travelling time considerably. It would have pruned 65 kilometres off the road journey and made the ferry trip directly across Cook Strait from Wellington shorter, without the delay caused by speed limits imposed on ferries in the Marlborough Sounds. Freight costs would also have been lowered.
People in Picton, on the other hand, will be delighted. Uncertainty about whether they would lose their terminal has hung over them for some time. By one estimate, had the ferry terminal moved south the town would have lost 20 per cent of its visitors. Most are just passing through but the annual loss to the town's economy was predicted to be $46 million.
In the end the financial gains and the wider economic benefits for the country would not have been enough to justify the cost and financial risk to either a private operator or the Government of building and running a new terminal.
The original evaluation of the proposal a couple of years ago had suggested the project might be feasible as a private undertaking. A closer look, however, over the last year found the numbers would not have added up. The revenue from ferry operators and freight companies would not have been enough to induce any private company to undertake it. That meant the Government would have had to make up the difference and carry financial risk in doing so.
The numbers also did not justify going ahead with the terminal as a public-benefit Government project. Key to this is the finding that the Picton terminal is economically sustainable for at least another 30 years. In addition, traffic across the strait has dropped and is forecast to continue dropping as the habits of travellers change.
It will be difficult to criticise the decision. The Government has often been accused of forging ahead with grand transport projects in defiance of evidence that they are not economically beneficial. This is a case where, having spent $1.1m on a year-long study, it has chosen to heed the findings. The evidence is the best available. The Government cannot be criticised for following it.
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