Updated 3:19 p.m. on Aug. 26

Orange Line riders who don’t speak English are running into problems getting help in the first days of the monthlong Orange Line shutdown, according to community advocates. That’s despite the fact that MBTA officials say they’ve taken plenty of actions — including on-site multilingual Transit Ambassadors and translated signage at some stations — to serve riders.

“When the MBTA and the city asked to meet with the community, that's one of the first things that we talked about,” said Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association.

“They [were told they] should hire ambassadors who are bilingual and familiar with the community,” Chen said. “I think that, at the time, the answers were like, ‘We'll take it into consideration; we cannot promise that that will happen.’”

To fill the gap, city officials are asking the MBTA to increase its multilingual assistance, and at least one community group has volunteered time at shuttle stops to provide translation services. And on Wednesday, the advocacy group Lawyers for Civil Rights requested a federal review of the agency, arguing that the MBTA violated federal law in not conducting an equity analysis to learn how the monthlong shutdown would affect riders of different demographic backgrounds.

In an email, an MBTA spokesperson said the shutdown did not require an equity analysis because FTA regulations only require such a review for service changes lasting longer than 12 months. An FTA spokesperson confirmed that an analysis is not required for such shutdowns.

On Monday, the first full weekday of the shutdown, District 6 City Councilor Kendra Lara said there were no Spanish-speaking Transit Ambassadors to help guide riders at the Forest Hills station, so she was acting as a translator during the morning rush hour. Lara alerted Mayor Michelle Wu to the gap as the mayor boarded a shuttle bus on her way to work.

A Wu spokesperson said the city was committed to making information available in multiple languages and was regularly communicating with the MBTA “to alert them of arising issues and provide feedback to make the necessary changes.”

Still, on Tuesday, GBH News observed some Spanish speakers at the Jackson Square station unable to get help from an ambassador because he didn’t speak any Spanish. And also on Tuesday, an ambassador on duty at the Chinatown stop, and one at the Boylston Green Line stop that Chinatown passengers were being redirected to, both told GBH News that they didn’t speak either Mandarin or Cantonese, the two most common Chinese languages in Boston.

Boston City Councilor Ed Flynn, whose district includes Chinatown, said on Wednesday that he’s “seen limited outreach to the Chinese community in Chinatown, and in other parts of Boston.” He said his office has fielded many calls about the MBTA’s lack of Cantonese language assistance.

“The residents of Chinatown predominantly speak Cantonese, and they don't speak Mandarin,” Flynn said. “And I do know that the MBTA has had Mandarin speakers at various locations ... but that's not necessarily the audience that I'm representing or advocating for.”

"This kind of last-minute scramble to fix gaps and fill deficiencies should not have to happen in this manner."
Oren Sellstrom, Lawyers for Civil Rights litigation director

An MBTA spokesperson said in an email on Tuesday that they have several Transit Ambassadors who are multilingual, with some who are fluent in Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole.

“We attempt to post them at stations which reflect language-specific demographics and travel patterns,” the spokesperson wrote. “For example, many of our Spanish-speaking TAs were stationed at State Street during the morning rush yesterday and today to assist East Boston/Chelsea riders who speak Spanish.”

Regarding the need for Chinese services, the spokesperson said there was one Mandarin-speaking Transit Ambassador, who was assisted Tuesday during morning rush hours by volunteers from the Chinese Church of Latter-Day Saints at the Chinatown, Boylston, Tufts and Downtown Crossing stops. The church’s bishop told the MBTA they did not encounter any riders needing Chinese language assistance.

“If the T is relying on volunteers to meet the civil rights of its riders, that is problematic in and of itself,” said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director of Lawyers for Civil Rights.

The organization sent a letter on Wednesday to the federal Department of Transportation, the Federal Transit Administration and U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Rachael Rollins requesting a review of the MBTA. The legal group argues the transit agency violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in any program or activity that receives federal funds or other federal financial assistance.”

Lawyers for Civil Rights claims that the MBTA violated that federal policy by failing to conduct a required “service equity analysis” prior to the Orange Line shutdown, to determine if it would have “a disproportionate impact on communities of color and/or low-income communities” — something LCR claims in its letter that the T has a history of neglecting over many years.

Sellstrom accused the T of being “haphazard” in its implementation of language services during the shutdown.

“That’s exactly backwards from what federal civil rights requires,” Sellstrom said. “What the T should have done was to undertake this analysis before announcing or before closing the Orange Line so that this kind of last-minute scramble to fix gaps and fill deficiencies should not have to happen in this manner.”

The MBTA spokesperson said the T had taken many actions “to mitigate the impacts of the Orange Line closure,” including online tools being available in a wide variety of languages, station signage that is translated into multiple languages, and “some key stations hav[ing] multilingual customer service staff.”

Still, advocates worry the situation is likely to get worse instead of better.

“In the next few weeks, we'll have college students coming back to Boston, we'll have public school students starting. So it will be a lot more chaotic than what it is now,” Chen said, adding that she’s already heard from people who had trouble getting to work. “So for those reasons, I feel like the MBTA really should beef up on their language access and language justice issues.”

Update: This article was updated to include comment from an FTA spokesperson and clarify the purpose of an equity analysis.