Drivers in the nation's second-largest city have long been accustomed to cracked and cratered streets, a problem that only worsened during a recession that left City Hall starved for cash.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Garcetti, who took office July 1, said it could take a decade and up to $3 billion to do a good, if not complete, repair job on hundreds of miles of roadway.
The Democrat also urged the Los Angeles Unified School District to push forward with a troubled $1 billion plan to provide iPads to students; acknowledged that it has been difficult to retrofit buildings vulnerable to earthquake damage because of liability issues; and said restoring some cash overtime for police officers would be a priority in the next three years.
Regarding city streets, the mayor said some fixes have been made on major thoroughfares such as Ventura Boulevard since he took office but "the problem is so great ... the average Angeleno isn't seeing or feeling" the improvements, the mayor said.
He tentatively endorsed the idea of a ballot proposal to raise money for repairs. "If we want to do this, we have to pay for it," he said.
Without a surge in funding—billions of dollars—the city would be able to do little more than spotty patch jobs, the mayor said. Residents would face higher taxes to get the job done, but Garcetti said it would probably cost drivers more in car repairs if streets are left crumbling and pocked.
When Garcetti was sworn in, he said he would be a back-to-basics mayor and promised his administration would "fill the potholes, pave the streets, fix the sidewalks" to address longstanding complaints under his predecessor, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
On a related issue, Garcetti said he would not commit to supporting a sales tax increase to fund billions of dollars of improvements to Los Angeles County's highways and public transit. The county's Metropolitan Transportation Authority is contemplating whether to develop a ballot initiative that would build on a 2008 measure voters passed to expand freeways, subways and light rail in the traffic-choked region.
The authority's own polling suggests that the public is not ready to support a measure at the two-thirds majority required for passage, whether this year or in 2016. Garcetti said a "steady campaign" could persuade enough voters that the first tax has helped, "but I'm not going to support something" that would not pass.
In the wake of the 20th anniversary of the deadly Northridge earthquake this week, Garcetti acknowledged that it has been difficult to retrofit vulnerable buildings because of liability issues. But he said the city's new partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey should make Los Angeles more resilient during the next temblor.
During his tenure, Villaraigosa built up the Police Department to 10,000 officers and Garcetti said he wants to maintain that number.
After years of requiring police officers to take time off in exchange for overtime work, rather than receive pay, Garcetti said he wants to restore some cash payments in the next three years.
Garcetti said he generally supports the concept of providing health care for people who entered the U.S. illegally, though cost would be an issue before he endorsed any proposal.
State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, has said he plans to introduce legislation that would provide health coverage for immigrants in the country illegally. They are not covered under the national health care overhaul.
Los Angeles has struggled for years to recruit an NFL team, after the Rams and Raiders fled the nation's second-largest media market. Garcetti said he was eager for an NFL team to return to Los Angeles but made clear his priority is improving the convention center.
"A football team, unless we add a whole bunch of Super Bowls, really doesn't add a lot to the local economy," he said. At this point "the work really is between owners and within the NFL to see whether there's somebody who wants to bring a team here."
Associated Press writers Tami Abdollah, Alicia Chang and Justin Pritchard contributed to this report.