LACOMBE, LA (WVUE) - This is the story about a parking lot in the middle of St. Tammany Parish. To see it, you need to exit I-12 at La. Highway 434 in Lacombe, take a left and drive past Louisiana Heart Hospital, keep going straight. There's the St. Tammany Coroner's Office on the right. All totaled, you'd drive almost three miles off the interstate until you reach this lot.
It's the parish's South Central Park and Ride lot.
"We want folks that, if they're going to commute and don't want to take more than one car down, if they can arrange it, to ride-share, just like they would anywhere around the country," says Ronnie Simpson, the parish's public information director.
The problem is that no one's using it.
"I drive past it quite often, and I have never ever seen a car in this parking lot," says Rick Franzo of the government watchdog group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany.
We've driven by it too, at least a half dozen times. We've never seen a commuter vehicle actually use it.
The parish's own inspection reports tell a similar story. In 10 different instances in as many months, inspectors found no vehicles parked. Two times they found one car; once, just 2. And even those cars may not be utilizing the facility for its purpose.
Sandy Morehouse works down the road on Highway 434. He comes to the lot perhaps a couple of times a week, he says, to "just relax and have a little snack."
We found his car in the lot one afternoon, but he wasn't parking for a ride-share - just taking a lunch break. When we ask him if he ever sees other cars there, he tells us, "Very seldom."
The only other vehicles we've seen at the lot are 18-wheelers, and on one day a cable company truck, also on a break.
"I see a few trucks once in a while, but not a lot," Morehouse tells us.
The parish built 216 parking spaces and a covered area. The project cost almost $1.5 million to design and pave about 4 acres. The money came from a federal grant.
"This to me is just another abuse, a waste… I say waste of tax dollars, federal tax dollars," says Franzo. "But more bothersome to me is that the parish accepts it. They don't realize that we're still paying for this. The citizens pay for this on the federal level, our federal taxes. You know, maybe people stop here for lunch and just park their car, or if it's a truck coming off the interstate….This is three miles or four miles off the interstate. Nobody even knows it's here, Lee, it's just crazy. There's not a sign except for right in front about this facility."
Ronnie Simpson says, "It's smack dab in the middle of the parish. It's good for north and south and east and west."
Simpson works for St. Tammany President Pat Brister – and it's important to note that this parking lot project was started and constructed under the former parish president, Kevin Davis.
Simpson says the parish has a vision for a great deal of development in this part of Lacombe; the Park and Ride lot is the first step. The rest of the land in the area will be used for Northshore Technical Community College and state, federal and local government office buildings.
"So you end up with this collaborative effort with local, state and federal government, as well as educational institutions," says Simpson.
Franzo lives in Lacombe and he says, if the area does get developed, cars still won't park in this lot. "They are going to park at their businesses," he tells us, laughing.
We ask Simpson, why a ride-share facility is necessary for commuters to offices that are just down the road from the lot, and he tells us, "Well, I don't know, I think you're kind of splitting hairs here… I think that the parking lot will be there, for the Park & Ride, will add value to that property. It will add value through the possibility of folks beginning to utilize, beginning to understand that it's there."
The parish selected All South Consulting for the engineering work on the project. The record shows the parish picked All South as the top firm on May 15, 2010. But 10 days before the parish officially made that selection, they alerted All South by email that they had been "chosen as the company to provide engineering services for the project.
So, on May 5, 2010 St Tammany told All South they got the work, even through parish records show All South wasn't officially selected as the top qualifier for the work until 10 days later.
In about a three-year time period, All South and its owners contributed $7,500 to Kevin Davis's campaign for parish president.
On April 28, 2010, one week before the parish alerted All South it had been selected, the company donated $2,500 to Davis. And one month after All South signed the $95,000 contract, All South gave more money, $1,000, to Davis.
The parish paid All South and a construction company to do the work, but the property itself was donated by a company called Weyerhaeuser. It includes the Park and Ride and the surrounding area. Appraisers valued the property at $4.1 million. In lieu of the donation, the parish gave Weyerhaeuser a $4.1 million credit on impact fees it may face on other land it owns in the parish.
"You don't know if there ever really is going to be a need for this, in this area," says Franzo. "This is based on a transient thing, where your cars will come in, they drive to get in the van and they go somewhere else with it."
It's part of a large area that St Tammany officials say will be a thriving community, one day. But right now, a community watchdog says, all he sees is a big waste of money.
Franzo tells us, "We spent $1.3 million – I'd rather have spent money on a park for the children. I'd rather have spent money on fixing roads in this parish that are a disaster, or drainage. We spent $1.3 million on a pink elephant, sitting in the middle of nowhere. It's just crazy."
Former Pres. Davis is now director of the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP). We reached out to him for comment to this story, and he replied with the following statement: