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Short-haul truckers call for equitable distribution of Washington’s climate dollars

A driver of a semi truck turns the steering wheel to the right. Downtown Seattle is just outside the windsheild.
Parker Miles Blohm
Samuel Tekle drives freight for Afar Trucking in Seattle and Tacoma. He's a short-haul or 'drayage' trucker, moving containers between different modes of transit after they are unloaded from ships in the ports.

The race is on for Washington to cut carbon emissions and meet targets set by state law.

The goal is a 95% reduction from 1990 levels by the year 2050, when the state has pledged to reach net-zero. It’s a huge goal and less than 30 years away.

Advocates say the way to get there is to make early gains fast, by getting rid of the biggest polluters first. Among those are diesel engines that power medium- and heavy-duty transportation.

Short-haul truck drivers are one group asking for help with the transition to cleaner options. They move containers full of retail goods and other freight after they arrive in local ports. Also known as drayage truckers, they provide a key connection between ships to warehouses and other modes of transit like rail or long-haul trucks.

On Seattle's Harbor Island, Dawit Habte, founder and CEO of Afar Trucking and Logistics, pointed toward several lines of bright red semi-trucks. The large, diesel-powered vehicles are parked without their trailers in a large lot alongside the Duwamish Waterway.

“We have about 50 chassis,” he said.

Red semi-trucks parked amongst semi-trailers at a port.
Parker Miles Blohm
Afar Trucking has about 50 company semitrucks, purchased second hand. The first owner was Coca-Cola. All run on diesel engines.

“So this is what we use to pull the containers out of the Port of Seattle and Tacoma, to all of the neighboring warehouses and distribution centers, manufacturers, wherever the container needs to go.”

“They're good vehicles. But the big companies, usually they buy them brand new and they use them for five years. And then they let go,” he said.

While they’re good for hauling containers, the big diesel engines that power them are some of the worst for the climate. Replacing them with electric alternatives would make a big dent in Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

“Climate pollution from diesel has doubled since 1990. So we are going in the exact opposite direction,” said Leah Missik, a senior policy manager with the nonprofit Climate Solutions. 

Missik is working with Habte and Seattle’s African Chamber of Commerce to advocate for a program that would subsidize new electric trucks for short-haul drivers in Washington, using point-of-sale vouchers. Their program would also fund the extensive charging infrastructure needed to power the trucks, and it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“It does take money. But we have money coming in from the Climate Commitment Act, which just went into effect,” Missik said.  

The first quarterly auctionfor pollution allowances under that state law brought in $300 million dollars earlier this year. With three more auctions this year and several years of allowances yet to come, it adds up to billions in new revenue.

Groups like Missik's are pushing lawmakers and the governor to allocate the revenue to programs that will quickly reduce air pollution that warms the climate. According to Washington's climate law, the programs should also focus on environmental justice and equity for communities suffering the worst effects of that pollution.

Rows of semi trucks in the distance with trailers parked in the foreground
Parker Miles Blohm
Most of Afar Trucking's company vehicles are bright red. Also parked on the company lot are trucks owned by independent operators who contract with Afar. Parking for semitrucks is in short supply and having a secure place to store them can make or break a driver.

View from the (short-haul) drivers’ seat

We piled into the cab of one of Habte’s trucks to ride along, following a loop past several terminals and warehouses they serve in Seattle. Sometimes they move containers all the way to Tacoma, but their main transport area is the industrial zone along the I-5 corridor and the roads beneath the labyrinth of bridges and overpasses south of Elliott Bay.

Habte and the driver, Samuel Tekle, are both from Eritrea, but he said there are lots of other immigrant groups on the job too.

“Eritreans, Ethiopians, Somalians and India and Russia. There's a lot of people from different parts of the world. They immigrated here and they're doing this line of work. It's a very diverse group, in fact,” Habte said.

Habte said they like the independence and flexibility of short-haul trucking. It’s comparable to driving for Lyft or Uber or DoorDash. The drivers get notice, on a website, of containers that need to be moved and where to pick them up. They sign up for an appointment window of several hours. But it can be tricky to make it, because of heavy traffic at the terminals.

A man stands with his hands crossed, semi-trailers are parked in the background.
Parker Miles Blohm
Dawit Habte is founder and CEO of Afar Trucking and Logistics. He's advocating for equitable distribution of state climate funds for electric vehicles and charging infrastructure.

“Sometimes we don't even make that because of the amount of trucks that are trying to get in and do the same thing,” Habte said.

“You'll see a line of trucks winding all the way to the freeway trying to get in or coming out of the port.”

They sometimes idle for hours, spewing pollution. And the truckers driving them are breathing that in while they work.

Along the route, we see several older trucks parked beneath the overpasses, wherever they can find room. These typically belong to independent drivers, who report weekly break-ins because they don’t have a secure place to put their vehicles.

Missik said addressing the climate problem will help with the parking shortage too.

“Because they will have a parking spot to charge. Of course we again need funding to build that infrastructure,” she said.

She explained transitioning to electric trucks would also help improve people’s health in the parts of the state hit hardest by diesel emissions. Some of those communities are just across the highway, in the Duwamish River Valley.

Hard-hit neighborhoods could soon find relief

Near the intersection of South Cloverdale Street and Marginal Way South, several food trucks fill a parking lot across the street from a coffee shop. There are single-family houses on both sides of this arterial.

“This is the South Park urban village in Seattle. And we are also standing at the intersection of two designated freight routes,” said Joel Creswell, straining his voice to compete with a loud refrigerator truck rumbling by. Soon after, an airplane roared overhead.

Creswell is a climate policy manager with the Washington state Department of Ecology’s air quality program. He said the city designates certain streets as preferred routes for trucks coming in and out of the Port terminals and nearby airports. But these routes are also in places where people live.

“So you have the freight activity and the trucks. You have airplanes going overhead and you also have people living, walking, riding the bus, biking around, getting their coffee,” he said.

Of all these transportation modes, the emissions from diesel are the ones that affect people’s health the most. There are immediate impacts, like high asthma rates in certain neighborhoods from particulates emitted by diesel engines. Longer term, diesel is also known to be the biggest contributor to cancer risk from air pollution in the state – as well as being a major contributor to climate change.

Creswell agreed there's a need for a program to help short-haul truckers, because he knows they normally drive the industry’s hand-me-downs. And no one is handing down zero-emissions trucks right now, despite the big federal push for more electric vehicles.

“If you push out a lot of new trucks, they're not necessarily going to make it to the short-haul truckers at the ports. That's just not how the business model is set up here,” Creswell said.

He added that the electrification needed for the state to reach its climate and health goals also promises to bring substantial noise reduction to neighborhoods that might not remember what peace and quiet feels like. Just five years from now, he believes that will be very different.

“I think we are right at the beginning of an inflection point. The technology is really exploding and so is the funding, and so is the fueling infrastructure,” he said.

He thinks important milestones that might seem unreachable now — like all new vehicles sold in Washington being 100% zero emissions by 2035 — will soon feel achievable.

IMG_3591.jpg   A gravel truck drives through a residential neighborhood in Seattle's South Park neighborhood. A tree truck with grass and daffodils is in the foreground.
Bellamy Pailthorp
A gravel truck rumbles down South Cloverdale Street in Seattle's South Park neighborhood. This area in the Duwamish River Valley is residential, designated as an urban village for housing density, but also has multiple preferred freight routes running through it.

Eyes on equity

Back at Afar Trucking, Dawit Habte said he remembers the state's last clean truck pilot projectat the port, a few years ago. It didn’t help many of the smaller businesses in the sector or the immigrant drivers.

“The money came in and the big companies were the first ones to get to, you know, the money. And they took all of it. And independent owner operators were left with whatever's left over,” Habte said.

Habte has testified before state legislators several times this year. He cares deeply about the environment -- the health of the drivers and of the planet. But this time, he said it’s not just health and climate concerns that matter. He wants to see more equitable distribution of state support.

Corrected: April 21, 2023 at 9:04 AM PDT
Spelling of Leah Missik's last name.
Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to