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Politics

Scott Talks Trade With Japanese Foreign Minister

January 7, 2011 - 6:00pm

Gov. Rick Scott met Saturday with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara to discuss expanding trade between Florida and Japan, but it was the state's high-speed rail project that most captured the focus of Maehara and the foreign press.

Scott and Maehara met for about 30 minutes in the Capitol building, and each later gave a brief statement, taking no questions.

"We had a wonderful meeting. We met and talked about expanding trade between Florida and Japan, and expanding trade into Latin America, which is something I've talked about for a long time," Scott said.

The meeting comes just days after a report, authored by one of Scott's transportation transition team advisers, heaped skepticism on the amount the project would cost and the number of riders it would serve. The Reason Foundation report, co-authored by Robert Poole, suggested the high-speed rail connecting Tampa and Orlando could cost $3 billion more than expected --more than double the official estimate.

Notably, Scott did not mention the project in his remarks, while Maehara talked extensively about high-speed rail and the prospect of using Japanese businesses with experience designing and constructing such projects for Florida's rail lines.

"Today I also had the opportunity to explain the Japanese method of high-speed rail to Gov. Scott. I sincerely hope that the state of Florida will adopt this Japanese method of high-speed rail," Maehara said through an interpreter.

Maehara talked about the safety, speed and punctuality of the Japanese high-speed and bullet trains, but also mentioned that Japan could finance a portion of the project's cost through the Japan Bank for International Cooperation. Maehara met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier Saturday to discuss Japanese financing of other high-speed rail projects in the country.

Funding for the project has been a point of contention for Scott, who stated as a candidate that he opposes using state funds for the project. Federal funds have been lined up to pay for the Tampa-Orlando line, but Florida must finance $280 million of the costs -- perhaps considerably more, according to some estimates -- possibly through a public-private partnership. Scott's office has stated that the governor is reviewing the Reason Foundation report but hasn't taken a position on the project.

Maehara also touted the jobs the project would create, but did not specify how many.

"I hope and I'm certain that (Gov. Scott) will revitalize the economy of Florida as a CEO governor," Maehara said.

During the meeting, Scott pointed out the improved opportunities for job creation that businesses will have under his 7-7-7 plan, and how both Japan and Florida have an economic interest in the expansion of the Panama Canal zone.

Scott presented the foreign minister with a traditional basket of one-of-a-kind Florida oranges, cufflinks bearing the Florida state seal, and an album showing the scenery of the state.

He announced that he will visit Japan when his schedule permits to continue trade discussions, and indicated Saturday's meeting would likely be the first of many exchanges between Florida and Japan.

I look forward to hosting a trade mission of Japanese business leaders in our great state to discuss the many advantages of locating their operations inFloridaand hiringFloridas well-educated employees. I am also excited to accept (Maehara's) offer to travel to Japan to discuss business opportunities for exporting more Florida goods and products to Japan," Scott said in a statement released after the meeting.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported Saturday that Japan may offer as much as $210 million in loans to help withFlorida's Tampa-Orlando high-speed railway. Central Japan Railway Co. is competing against Asian and European companies to build the first U.S. bullet-train line.

According to the story -- and a Bloomberg interview in Tokyo on Friday with Tadashi Maeda, head of Central's corporate planning -- state-owned Japan Bank for International Cooperation may lend as much as 60 percent of the Florida projects overall funding shortfall as part of the Central bid.

Reach Gray Rohrer at grohrer@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859. Nancy Smith, nancybutlersmith@yahoo.com, contributed to this report.

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